One stiflingly hot evening in late August, I found myself in a bar in east London watching as the words “typing” disappeared and reappeared at the top of my WhatsApp screen. A familiar tightening sensation gathered around my navel. I held my breath, counting one, two, three, before the message finally appeared. “I’m so sorry to do this but I’ve had a family emergency, so I’m not going to make it tonight.”
In reality, the actual message was much longer and much shittier, involving a complicated tale of a close family member having a severe mental health crisis resulting in a life or death situation. This required my date (we’ll call him Paul) to flee the city immediately. Several things went through my mind: shame, despair and also mild concern for Paul’s family member. I got to my feet, sure my forehead must be emblazoned with the word REJECT. Blinking back tears, I stepped out into the oppressively hot, dark night, hoping it would swallow me whole.
I woke up the next morning feeling calmer and more empathetic. Rolling over, reaching for my phone, I brushed aside any residual angst and dove into the usual business of surveilling the lives of strangers on the internet. Scrolling through Instagram stories, noting a thirst trap here, a plate of vegan food there, and then no. Surely not? A photo of Paul with a group of friends, cheerfully drinking beers at the pub, that he had reposted onto his own story. Paul with a grin plastered across his face, without a care in the world. And with that, I was done with dating.
At this point it’s pertinent to go back to the beginning. I have always been terrified of intimacy. Playing kiss chase in the playground, aged seven, I ran with real terror away from the offending kiss-giver, horrified by the idea of being caught but always slightly disappointed when I wasn’t. This push-pull of fear and sadness at not being chosen carried me through school and my teenage years, where I was too afraid to show the slightest sign of interest in any of my crushes for fear of the inevitable rejection. Instead, I chose to wallow in a purgatory of unrequited romances, safe in my head, and never allowing myself to feel the fear, but also the joy, of real connection.
In my early twenties I finally allowed myself to be somewhat vulnerable, getting into situationships with ease, but scratching my head when the same type of boy (usually insecure or recently out of a relationship) began to pull away as soon as things became remotely serious. When the tables turned and someone became too “intense” for me (their offence usually being texting too much or telling me they liked me), I recoiled with horror and sometimes genuine contempt.
This pattern spooled on in an exhausting loop for almost a decade. Finally, after a particularly crushing breakup in 2021 – with a man whose complete lack of interest in my life I had pretended was just a quaint personality trait – I found myself in the darkest hole of my life. For months I yo-yoed between wanting to feel something and numbing myself into oblivion, medicating with a cocktail of alcohol, drugs, smoking, over-exercising, over-eating, undereating, vaping, and smoking. When none of these destructive strategies made the slightest bit of difference to my mood, I decided to go to therapy for the first time.
My choices of men were a form of self-sabotage. I went after those who were chronically unavailable to me, and ran from those who weren’t.
It was revelatory. After months of excruciating self-reflection that, at times, saw me in my local park hysterically crying like a banshee, I discovered that absolutely none of my behavior had been the result of some curse placed upon me at birth. My choices of men were a form of self-sabotage. I went after those who were chronically unavailable to me, and ran from those who weren’t. Either way, I ensured that I was the one who remained unavailable. Through therapy, I began to chart my catalogue of unhealthy behaviours from under-eating and then bingeing, to regularly drinking to excess. They all stemmed from the same place: a pathological fear of my feelings. Instead of confronting the emptiness I felt inside, I had learnt to numb the sadness and fear by fixating on restricting food or dulling my senses with alcohol or Netflix. Attachment theory is talked about a lot nowadays, and it transpired I was a textbook fearful avoidant: anxious for love and affection, yet also terrified of it.
In the deepest recesses of my brain, intimacy and commitment had come to represent abandonment, rejection and pain. Keeping a partner at arm’s length or choosing people who were never able to meet my needs was my unconscious strategy to keep myself safe. For the most part it worked. But by trying to protect myself, I had created a lonely cage. Therapy allowed me to unlock memories and deeply held beliefs and examine them. It felt like an act of liberation.
I had been in therapy for almost a year when the Paul debacle happened, so I really should have known better. A year earlier, Paul had flaked on me on and off for months, and had resurfaced suddenly, suspiciously keen and available. But this emotional setback turned out to be exactly what I needed. At my therapist’s suggestion I decided to take a big step away from dating in the form of an entire year off, refocusing my energy onto myself instead.
In the past, I had always felt that I needed company to book a holiday. But a month after my dating resolution I decided to take myself on a tour of the Italian lakes. I sipped Aperols in Padua, studied Tintorettos in Venice, sketched on the shores of Lake Iseo and shovelled pasta into my mouth with wild abandon. I started doing yoga most days and listening to podcasts about somatic healing. I attempted to stop smoking and I began meditating every morning and evening. One day, I had a lightbulb realisation that I wanted to be an artist and I had been repressing this side of myself my whole adult life. Within weeks of returning from my travels I had quit my job, moved out of my flat and been accepted onto a fine art degree.
Now I am dating again. I wish I could say the long break has made it easier, but having awareness of what I need and what I deserve makes the sifting process a whole lot easier. I know I deserve someone who is present, committed and available, someone who listens when I speak, asks actual questions, is honest, kind and reliable. I was rendered almost speechless on a recent date, when not only did he listen to everything I said with genuine interest but, when I attempted to turn the conversation back to him, he asked me sincerely to stop deflecting and continue what I was saying in more detail. It’s sad that this behaviour still causes me to double take, but unlearning a lifetime’s worth of programming takes more than two months.
The Pauls of my past were all lost, immature boys, who could barely remember my drink order, let alone my favorite color. But it wasn't just their fault that it didn't work – I was unavailable all along. It was only by learning to love myself that I was able to choose the right people, to hold my own. I have stopped running away from feelings and, finally, I am running towards something.