Content warning: mentions of sexual assault
Between the ages of 19 and 20, I was the result of what I’d lived through and learned during the earliest years of my teens. I spent what feels like every moment scrolling on Tumblr, every hour pouring over big and beautiful fiction, and much too long misreading love in Effy Stonem’s tears whilst I rewatched Skins over and over again.
I had indoctrinated myself; taught myself to believe that damage is endearment, and so I grew into a person that described love unironically as ‘glorious suffocation’. I’d always felt a lot, being a child that screamed for weeks over a single nightmare and a teenager that would fill notebooks with dramatic lines about about never understanding grey, but none of these things could have prepared me for the heaviness of my first love.
“Nothing more can be taught to [the 20-year-old] version of myself, just my important, unavoidable acceptance of the truth that the rabbit hole is shallow.”
At 19, I wrote poems about love that were informed by literature and TV but full of things I didn’t fully understand. They were tinged with drugs and tornadoes and moments under neon lights. I wrote it as two hands struggling and nails digging into palms, clinging to each other desperately and manically, full of strife and sacrifice. But I’d never really dealt with anything all that difficult until my love ended. Reeling from heartbreak, I remember lying down in a field and opening my notepad, waiting. Comforting myself with the lesson I’d been fed that pain is power, I waited for the muses and nothing came. That was July.
September was still empty, so I thought the pain wasn’t enough. Moving through the day to day, back at uni going lecture to lecture, I thought that maybe I hadn’t fulfilled the prophecy – picturing moments of glamourised chaos my early teens had taught me.
That’s as far as I’ve got for understanding my 20 year old self that has now been and gone; nothing more can be taught to that version of myself, just my important, unavoidable acceptance of the truth that the rabbit hole is shallow and the bottom just feels like a concussion. Pushing any hand away when a first conversation didn’t set me instantly alight, losing friends to weeks of boredom, shredding calendar months of my life away chasing toxicity – the big hurt left me alienated, not an artist.
“I’d always assumed pain would serve me, giving me the fuel of every artist I admired, but it didn’t.”
I think the strangest thing about trauma is the way it can numb you. I’d always assumed pain would serve me, giving me the fuel of every artist I admired, but it didn’t. Secretly expecting the weight of heartbreak to be sublime, I thought my sexual assault would be the key to writing my greatest works. I thought PTSD would be the final drop to make me overflow in the way I’d learned to admire. But instead, the heaviness became terrifyingly light. Rejecting real intimacy while handing out a false version so easily demands a level of cold denial that has stuck around. It’s still hard to not feel betrayed.
Now 23, I sit at my kitchen table, painting a handmade birthday card for the first boyfriend I’ve had that has been sweet and kind, not toxic at all. Somewhere, he’s proofreading my work and he messages to say he loves it, pointing out grammatical issues in a way that sounds like an extra compliment. We spend weekends laughing, always agreeing on film choices, knowing when to let the other wander off alone in a gallery.
“Learning to love maturely after trauma has made me question my whole self.”
I’m making plans to secretly make him a birthday cake, but I still have to be assured that what I feel is real and right. My hands aren’t sore from holding on, I breathe easily and spend days comfortably alone – and it takes a lot to not tear myself apart for this, as it seems re-learning love after hurt feels a lot like growing pains, aching and annoying when I’m having a good day. Being with him feels like gentle pins and needles as numb nerve endings come back to life. With each nice pang comes an itch from the loss of teenage chaotic love, phantom limb scratching, telling me to pick it all apart.
After learning my range of emotions in a box room, worshipping a misreading of Nymphomaniac and vowing life would be a Lana Del Rey song, the calmness now feels embarrassing. Shyly I text questions to coupled-up friends, searching for assurance. Building myself up from the foundation of being a big feeler and learning to love maturely after trauma has made me question my whole self.
I would love to sit my 14-year-old self down and preach that creating scars won’t make someone run to kiss them, it will only hurt. I yearn to silence the 19-year-old that screams it’s not enough, wanting to disrupt my sweet Sundays with messiness, proclaiming me guilty or fraudulent for a relationship that’s easy and calm. I’d do anything to face my 21-year-old self, hold her as she’s crumpled on the floor and talk about triggers, drawing out boundaries and treating them as important and non-negotiable. Figuring out feeling as I wander out of the other end of trauma’s shadow is sometimes duller than expected, and maybe I’m even learning what grey is as I’m teaching myself to love it as I learn to love him.
“Loved in spite of it, chaos aside, medication taken and water refilled, I’m learning to feel full again.”
When we watch TV, he points out toxicity in relationships and strokes my thumb when we told hands. I tell him about my feelings even when they’re tricky and doubtful, overthinking as left-overs of my past taunt me for being settled. In return, he lets me into his creative processes, he makes me tea, he repeats affirmations.
I struggle to write about it all, filling my notepad instead with ideas from a mind that seems to gain more room in his company, rather than being so consumed it only hurts. I write about trauma, slowly unknotting it, finding a voice for it without becoming it again. Loved in spite of it, chaos aside, medication taken and water refilled, I’m learning to feel full again, toe by toe in a new and mild pool of grown-up adoration.
Lucy is a Manchester based writer working across music, lifestyle and dipping in and out of poetry. She has by-lines in places like Clash, NME and Salty. @lucyharbron
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