I walk across the gravel parking lot to greet my old favorite training partner, who I haven’t seen in five months. He looks uncertain and non-threatening; feeling some relief, I decide to hug him. I step in close enough to rest my head against his shoulder; it’s comforting for an instant, then I suddenly feel uneasy and pull back. I spin on my heel and start walking so I don’t have to feel the fear.
This sort of thing happens a lot. I’m not always clear about what I’m feeling until later, when it occurs to me that my uncharacteristic bitterness was unacknowledged anger seeping out. I’m a lot more aware when I don’t need to talk to the guy. The other day this attractive man smiled at me in the grocery store. I smiled back, and the moment after I registered attraction to him I felt a sinking in my belly, the same sick feeling I used to have arriving home to see my abuser’s Jeep in the driveway; fear. I’m afraid of men.
It isn’t an all-encompassing fear; I’m very comfortable with dudes in my yoga classes where my role is clearly delineated. My closest friend of over fifteen years feels like a brother to me. I trust him implicitly and he never sets me off. The husbands of my friends are comfortable to be around; some of them even hug me. The physical therapist treating my neck manages expectations brilliantly. At our first meeting I was alone in a room at UNC with him. The context was clear and boundaried, but what really put me at ease was his clear, empathetic, respectful communication. He explained everything he was going to do first, asked my permission absolutely every time he had to touch me, and reminded me repeatedly that I was in charge and could stop anything I didn’t like. By the end of that appointment, a man I’d just met had me practically half-asleep with my neck and head in his hands.
What is it, then, that makes me hyper-vigilant with a hug from Scott or a smile from the guy in the grocery store? What makes me shudder when I get a stray “How are you doing?” message from my student who’s confessed feelings for me? Yet I can fall asleep on a picnic blanket next to Christian or let Dr. McMorris work on my sternocleidomastoid. (That’s a muscle at each side of the front of the neck, not a comfortable place to have touched.)
Clarity of intention conveys safety. My abuser obfuscated his intentions most of the time. If I feel any inkling of attraction from a human with a lot of testosterone, it seems a threat I need to brace against, lest I misread a signal and let myself be hurt. Knowing I’m with a friend who’s always been kind and truthful, or a doctor who’s clearly giving me control of the situation manages my expectations and allows me to relax.
My nervous system insists that I refine the skill of boundary setting, and I am learning. Still, when men respectfully support that behavior, it goes a long way.