Lessons from the past

Working with some young clients lately got me thinking about myself in the same age, when I just arrived to a big city to study. More and more often these days, I see those memories as if looking at somebody else rather than identifying with my younger self and seeing things through her eyes. In my mind, I see a little bookworm who is finally starting a relatively independent life after years of longing for it, bright eyes full of hopes and dreams, and I think: Boy, I was green. I was greener than spring in Ireland. There is no word to adequately describe that shade of green except maybe fluorescent. Just a little bit more, and I could have ended up as 50 shades of green.

Growing up in a relatively small community and meeting a limited number of people, I did experience some bullying and injustice, but still within certain limits. Most of it could have been explained as either temporary egotism of childhood or misguided projections of adults with toxic backgrounds. I also spent more time with books than people.  At every meal break in my school, I would run into the school library to drift off in fantasy. After school, I would often go to the town library. Occasionally, the library cleaner had to brush dust off of me. While all that reading helped develop my thinking and awareness of my feelings, it certainly didn’t prepare me for the real world. In the books, there is always some pain and injustice, sure, but it’s usually temporary and relatively swiftly overcome (Game of Thrones wasn’t published yet). Lead characters are usually decent people, and the others are more like a blur.

By age of 18, I have already read quite a few popular psychology and self-help books, and was convinced that “any aggression is a cry for help” and that if I’m nice to others, others will be nice to me, sooner or later. I had a lot to learn.

So there I was, joyful about my new-found freedom and eager to start new friendships and perhaps get a part-time job. There was no internet yet, no forums or social networks to give me some idea of what to expect. I wanted to give the whole world a chance. Whoever approached me in the streets or in a city park (reading, of course) I would give them a chance. (After all, all the stray encounters in books are followed by interesting developments!) If they would act a bit weird, I would give an internal shrug and think “I guess they have some reason for it.” Well, they did, but not in the way I imagined.

I couldn’t really imagine people seeing me as an object rather than a person. In the small community I grew up in, most people either knew me, or vaguely expected I might be either related to or at least friendly to somebody they knew. With the anonymity of a big city, some people unleash their inner beast. Welcome to the world of sexual predators.

When online discussions come to the topic of sexual harassment and rape, many people lash out angrily at anybody who suggests teaching young girls reasonable caution. They say, “Girls shouldn’t have to learn to be cautious, men should learn to see them as people and control themselves!” I agree with all my heart. But at age of 18-19, what I desperately needed was somebody to teach me how the world is, not how the world should be.

Those men who approached me perceived my friendliness as a signal that I knew and agreed to what they expected. Most of them couldn’t possibly imagine somebody as naive as I was. Not a week after I arrived to the city, I was chatting with a guy who appeared friendly enough. After a while, he asked me, “Would you want us to spend time together here and there?” I thought he meant to have a coffee together, so I said, “Sure, why not?” He put his arm around my waist. I moved it away. He said, “But you just agreed to…” I said, “I didn’t agree with that!” His jaw dropped: “Well, what did you think I meant?” My jaw dropped.

Some days later I was in the car of a guy who invited me to make a trip to the nearby mountain. On the top of the mountain, he tried to kiss me. I refused. On the way back, he swerved to a forest path and threw himself at me. I scrambled for the door, managed to open it and ran away into the forest. It was dark by then. I ran, hid behind trees, then walked until I found a small restaurant and asked some people to drive me back to the city. The guy phoned me next day (yes, I gave him my phone number before chaos ensued. Yes, I was naive. We already established that.) and claimed that he thought I would like it. I told him not to call me ever again. Of course he called. He gave up after a while.

Next episode (yes, there was a next episode. I know, I know.) was with a guy who offered me a part time job. It sounded interesting enough, so I agreed that he would drive me to his supposed shop where I would be working. He drove in silence. Somehow, I felt something was off. I still have no idea what did I sense – smell? Posture? Expression? – but my heart started pounding. My body was screaming, “Get out of here!” At the next red traffic light, I opened the door and left without a word. He didn’t seem surprised. He barely looked back. I trusted my instincts, finally. How many girls didn’t? Or were too polite to leave?

Luckily, I never stumbled upon somebody truly aggressive, or a stalker. Perhaps even such people were shocked into inaction by my naivety. People I met those days weren’t overly skillful in manipulating, either; by the time I met some such people, I was slightly less naive. Anyway, I stopped responding to men approaching me in the park. That was easier said than done. Slowly, I stopped going to the park altogether.

If I could go back in time and give advice to my younger self, I would tell her: “Listen to your instincts. They are not there for decoration only. They have a purpose. You are in a jungle, even if it’s grey rather than green. Observe carefully. Open your eyes and ears wide. And don’t sit in the car with strangers.”

I still generally trust people. It turns out well most of the time. But I’m much more discerning now and my criteria are way higher. I was lucky enough to come out of those experiences unharmed. But how many girls (and boys) weren’t so lucky?

Some people say that teaching girls to care for their safety means blaming the victim. I don’t understand such black and white attitude. If you said to a child, “Don’t sit in the car with strangers” and the child was kidnapped anyway, would you blame the child or the kidnappers? Teenagers might have more developed brains and more experience than small children, but they are not nearly experienced enough. They cannot easily imagine all kinds of different people out there. Even adult people can never be totally prepared for anything that might happen. Teach your children about finding balance between caution and freedom. And yes, teach boys to see girls as people, too. There are too many toxic models that teach them the opposite.

What would you advise to your younger self if you could write a letter to your past? Share in the comments!

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