INTIMACY

Craigslist confessional: “When it comes to picking our partners, there are no coincidences”

This entry is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for nearly two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

I grew up in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, while the Soviets and Afghans waged a brutal war next door. My childhood is filled with events that seemed normal at the time, but in retrospect, they’re horrific. I remember going to the market and watching my mom fend off Afghani orphans who offered to carry her groceries for spare change. I remember the first time my friends brought over a box of bullets and asked to store them in our fridge.

I remember those tense few months when my father stood trial for crimes he did not commit. I remember—more than once—walking down the street or being on a crowded bus and feeling a strange hand grope my private parts. I remember learning that my sister had been raped, and then that my best friend had been raped, too. I remember, but I want more than anything to forget.

Back then, violence was everywhere. Ghoulish predators hid in crowds, getting their hands on whatever they could. Religious repression seeped through our society’s safety net and made victims out of thousands of young girls. But nobody talked about it. Hush, my mother told me. Cover your head, that will stop them from looking at you, we told each other when something happened.

What I did then, and I see that now, is that I normalized the abnormal and blamed myself for everything that happened. I banished clothes that I’d received unwanted attention in to the back of my closet. I told myself that I was too short to be attractive. I shrunk away and tried to stay safe and out of sight. And I accepted that when women go out in public, they put themselves at awful risk.

A few months ago, my husband mistakenly sent me a text that was meant for someone else. We went to couple’s therapy and he was diagnosed with sex addiction. I kept going to group therapy even after we signed the divorce papers, because I was learning things about myself for the first time. I started seeing how my childhood has affected the adult I’ve become. It was a revelation, albeit sometimes an unwanted one.

One day, a close friend told me that a priest had molested him. He was awfully messed up about it, and he came to me to get some perspective on things. His story reminded me of all those men in my country who had been told that sex was bad and dirty, and who walked around pushing their members onto the backs of young girls in crowded streets.

In my country, men could hold hands as they walk down the street with one another—it’s a sign of friendship, kind of how some European men kiss each other on the cheek. But although there’s a gay culture there, men can only marry women. Premarital sex is haram, sinful, and although it’s not as common as it used to be, honor killings do still happen. Women who are raped are blamed and shamed. Sex is, in short, bad—unless it happens under very carefully circumscribed circumstances.

It took my therapy friend’s story to get me thinking about how all of this affected me. I’m terrified of intimacy, for instance. I picked my husband because I knew that he was emotionally unavailable and that’s what I needed. I didn’t want someone who put me in touch with my feelings—I needed someone who left me alone to forget. I avoid sex because my first brush with it was so negative—so unwanted—that reliving anything of the sort is traumatic to me.

But it’s been such a rewarding experience, getting to play detective in my own life. I’ve learned that things that happen during formative years can have such an impact. I’ve seen that willful blindness is a powerful defense mechanism. And just a few months ago, I found out that there are no coincidences when it comes to picking out our partners. The science of attraction isn’t a fluffy cloud of sugar, spice, and everything nice.

Now that I’ve opened myself up somewhat to reliving and feeling things that I’d suppressed for so long, it feels like I’m alive again. I try not to isolate, and some of my relationships have become much stronger for it. But it’s still scary. In many ways, being checked out emotionally was easier, because very few things could get to me. Now I feel like I’ve shown my mushiest, most vulnerable parts to the world. I feel like an exposed nerve. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling—having to trust that someone else won’t hurt you. I haven’t quite mastered it. I still see monsters everywhere—but most of them live in my head; they aren’t real. I know that now.

Flickr image by RichardBH via CC 2.0. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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