Just own it

I used to find it impossible to admit to my mistakes and failings.

I’d drag myself over hot coals for the slightest misdemeanour, but outing myself to somebody else? Not a fucking chance. I think I thought everyone else was a whole lot closer to perfect than I was, and the only way I could ever be remotely accepted by anyone was to at least pretend that I was too.

When I was younger, this resulted in me snaring myself in kneejerk denials that led to bizarre, convoluted, improv lie-trains that surely weren’t fooling anyone. As I grew up, I calmed my powerful instinct to deny, and instead developed a more sophisticated tactic of mitigating my blame. I also learned to skirt around the lie; to say true but misleading or distracting things that let me avoid disclosing the dirt.

I always felt guilty about trying to shirk the guilt, so I was always struggling to change my behaviour. But the shame within me was just so crippling that I was never wholly successful. I could never fully own my shortcomings.

A few years ago, I was working for board at a family homestead in Northern California and one of my hosts took me into San Francisco to meet her friend who was flying in. We were meeting in a jazz bar, and after we found parking, there was a short walk up a decently inclined street. I hadn’t given it a thought, and started walking at my usual pace when my host had to stop me. She was very overweight and couldn’t keep up.

She told me about how she could barely walk a block these days, and hills got her out of breath in a few steps, as we made our slow and staggered ascent. What she described, and what I could see, was a reality I couldn’t imagine, and had my mind reeling at the countless implications it must have for every moment of her life.

But then, more strikingly, she very matter-of-factly told me how deeply it bothered her, how it was a very real, very big problem in her life that she was very aware of, and how simultaneously she was very aware of the fact she was doing absolutely nothing about it. No excuses, no complaining, no sugarcoating, no joking, no agenda – just a plain, simple describing of the very personal facts in a totally casual, unloaded way.

This was a quality of hers that I saw displayed a number of times while I stayed there. She just owned herself and her flaws entirely. Fucking wow. I want that level of bravery. I think that was the first time I’d really seen true authenticity modelled to me in the real world. It was inspiring, and it stayed with me.

There are still certain areas of my life that I find it difficult to own up to, but damn have I come a long way. Finding a metric to aspire to instead of a metric to fear made all the difference.

The thawing process

Once Upon A Time, I visited Iceland. It was originally a trip planned with my boyfriend after we found out I was pregnant. A miscarriage and a break-up in the months preceding meant that it was a somewhat different prospect by the time it arrived.

I could have cancelled (I had hardly any money, so that would have been the most sensible option), or I could have invited a friend (though I couldn’t say I really had any close enough to ask at the time), but the path of least resistance for me was to go alone.

I was still pretty fragile.

I’d paid the deposit on a private room at a hostel, and I could have transferred it to a much cheaper bed in a shared room, but I kept it, because I couldn’t face the idea of being around strangers. It left me with only £50 spending money for the week, but it didn’t feel like a choice.

I was lonely, in truth, but I was so excruciatingly on edge around other people that I couldn’t bear it for very long.

Every morning I would peer through the small window on the kitchen door trying to ascertain if there was anyone in there. If I could see multiple people, I’d go back to my room for a while. Sometimes I got caught out and walked in on a group – when that happened I’d panic, fudge some kind of small, quick task, and leave again as quickly as possible.

On my first day, I was booked on a group horse trek, and afterwards got talking to a Canadian girl. She was about my age, and also holidaying alone. It was nice, I liked her, and the conversation was comfortable. But then she invited me out for dinner, and I freaked out; making excuses, declining solutions and probably inadvertantly offending her.

Another day, an older Danish gentleman struck up conversation with me when I was getting breakfast. He was kind, interesting and unintimidating. I benefitted from his knowledge and we talked about things I think about to this day, but I still couldn’t wait to get out of there.

There was only one person I let myself connect with on the trip, and how that even came about speaks so much about where I was at. What I was learning and what I still had to learn. Where I felt comfortable and what I could accept.

One day, I was picking up some things for tea in the supermarket around the corner from my hostel. I was staying a decent way out of the city centre, so it was a fairly small, quiet shop, with only a handful of people inside. As I was finishing up my transaction, during which I managed to say less than three words, a tall, rugged Icelander in a black, red and white Nordic style hat cut in assertively to ask the cashier something. As he stepped back, we made eye contact. He nodded at me with a smirk, and departed.

A few days later, I was feeling the strain of my isolation and decided I had to overcome my anxiety and do something social. For this, it seemed, I was going to need alcohol. I identified the only supposed rock bar in Reykjavik and set out to locate it. Then I walked up and down the street past it about three times.

Finally, teeth gritted, I headed up the steps.

As soon as I got through the door I noticed a tall, rugged Icelander sitting in the corner with a companion; his black, red and white hat lying on the table. After clumsily ordering a whiskey, feeling unbearably conspicuous, I took a seat at a small table nearby.

Despite a way-into-the-realm-of-obvious amount of eye contact, and a bunch of ideas raging through my head of what could transpire from this point, I was soon one drink down with nothing to show for it beyond some vicious internal tension. It was getting weirder by the minute, but I decided to spend some precious Króna on another and give myself one more chance. When I got back to the table with my one more chance, he and his friend were leaving, drinks unfinished.

Fuck.

I waited for a while to see if he was coming back. By the time the barmaid cleared away the glasses, I figured that was probably unlikely. So I migrated over to the now vacant table. It had a better view of the room, and maybe I could salvage this still by striking up conversation with someone else? This probably wasn’t enough whiskey for that but, if I didn’t have hope, what else did I have?

The place was almost empty. It was looking bleak. I left my jacket to mark my seat and went to the toilet to see if the change of scene helped rally my dwindling optimism. I sat there for a while, wondering what the Hell I thought I was doing entering into a social challenge way beyond my paltry capabilities. Did I actually really believe this would accomplish anything?

When I got back to the table, the tall, rugged Icelander with the black, red and white hat was back. This time with a group of friends. This time sitting at a different table, but right next to the seat I had usurped and claimed with my jacket. Right next to me.

Fuck.

As he and his friends exchanged their Icelandic words, I sat there, burning, silent, sipping my whiskey as slowly as possible, waiting for an opening wide enough to drop a bumbling, crippled shygirl into.

My glass was dry.

Fuck.

After sitting, trying to look casual, doing absolutely nothing for a few minutes, I figured it was time to call this as a failure. I began faffing with my bag to waste a little more time. And then the tall, rugged Icelander with the black, red and white hat turned to me.

“Hey, can you do me a favour?”
“Yeah?”
“Can you watch my stuff for a few minutes?”
“Sure.”

Thank fuck.

When he returned, it could have easily been an awkward moment where I failed to seize the opportunity veritably dangling its genitals in my face. But, instead, he took a few minutes to talk to me, then bought me a drink and invited me into the group. I could take no credit.

My experience instantaneously was transformed from quiet and painful reflection to reckless enjoyment and abandon, completely orchestrated by him. He had single-handedly delivered me from loneliness, and so I followed him like a disciple for the rest of the night, and well into the morning.

I’m still learning from that night. Mostly, these days, I’m learning from the flaws in myself and him I was unable to see clearly back then. But, at the time, it was simply the flood of relief I desperately needed, reminding me of what it might feel like to be truly alive.