Here is how I spent last night.
I shut myself in the kitchen, put on one of my CDs from the nineties that nobody else in my family likes, and baked fruit crumble and apricot muffins. Then I dissolved a rose-petal bath bomb in a hot bath, soaked for a while, after which I put on my favourite pyjamas and took my Kindle and a mug of camomile tea upstairs so I could read in my freshly changed bed with its brand new linens.
It was AMAZING. It was amazing because I hit all of my sensory high points (okay, not all of them. What are you like?) without dissolving into a bottle of wine or a family packet of salt and vinegar crisps, and all of that good stuff. But mostly it was amazing because I was making the places in my life into my spaces. Kitchen: door closed, favourite music on, food I want to eat in the oven. Bathroom: pink scented bathwater. Fresh towels. Door shut. Bedroom: new linens bought by me. Special nobody-else-is-allowed-to-touch-it mug. Kindle.
Virginia Woolf wrote this essay, you may have heard of it. A Room of One’s Own. Most people haven’t actually read it, which is fine and perfectly understandable because Woolf, whilst a genius of her time and everything, did have this tendency to sort of ramble a bit. I mean, come on. You know I’m right. But the thing is, the title of this essay gets referenced all the damn time, largely in contexts which do not relate to the original point (which was that women can’t be great artists without the space and the income to provide the wherewithal, which male artists are afforded. You’re welcome, random college student who has somehow stumbled upon a sobriety blog. Happy essay writing, and remember, don’t drink!).
Anyway. The very concept of a room of one’s own has a huge amount of resonance with pretty much all the women I know, so much so that it stands alone as a concept. Because we don’t have one. The assumption is that the house is ours, whereas our men retreat to their ‘man cave’ when they need some space. But a house is not a room of one’s own, it’s a space that is shared and invaded and encroached upon. The fact that I chose the bed linen without reference to LH doesn’t mean that I don’t end up clinging to the edge of the bed like I’m sleeping on a rock face when my five year old has a bad dream and comes in. ‘My’ kitchen is only that when the rest of the family wants dinner cooked for them; it doesn’t stop them raiding the fridge for snacks, or leaving coffee mugs everywhere. My iPad is commandeered by Little Girl when she wants to ‘do drawings’, and having a book in front of my face doesn’t stop LH sharing hilarious titbits from Top Gear (disclaimer: titbits may not actually resemble hilarious).
It doesn’t just apply to domestic spaces, nor to women who live with children, of course. Women are constantly expected to cede space. Walk directly towards a man coming the other way on the street, and who steps aside? Who takes up the armrests on an aeroplane? Ever been on public transport and had the misfortune to sit next to a man suffering from EBS (Enormous Bollock Syndrome)? And I’m not even getting into the fact that women are constantly told to never go out alone at night, to accept a (male) chaperon for their own safety, that there are places so male that if a woman enters them, she’s effectively conceding any right to choose what happens to her from there on in.
Public spaces are male spaces. Domestic spaces are called female spaces, but are subject to intrusion and conditions that make them feel less than our own. So for a lot of us, the space we withdraw into, when we need a room of our own, is ourselves. Our bodies. I have, on occasions when I feel overwhelmed by the inability to withdraw physically, retreated inside my own head. I mean, I have created an imaginary room, and stepped inside it, and shut the door. It has a very comfortable armchair, and also a lamp.
But if you’re a mother, I think that the intrusion is more relentless, because it follows you home. It’s not just little children and their endless demands to sit in your lap and pull your hair and tell you interminable stories about fairies; it’s teenagers who stay up late and go through your room and borrow your clothes, it’s husbands who ‘haven’t seen you all day and just want some company’ so you stay in the room and try and drown out Jeremy Clarkson, it’s the raft of in-laws who have somehow become your responsibility to maintain relations with by dint of you owning a vagina, and it never stops.
So you retreat into a bottle of wine.
Alcoholism is a lonely disease. The lying, the hiding, the denial, they all serve to insulate the addict in a little bubble, away from their loved ones. You can’t have meaningful, intense connections with people when your heart is secretly sworn to the wine glass. As well as which, alcohol numbs emotion. Like armour, it promises to protect you from harm, but it slows you down and robs you of fluidity and authenticity instead.
And sometimes, all of that sounds bloody blissful, actually. When three people are clamouring for your approval before your first sip of coffee, and the world feels raw and bright and you can’t even have a wee without someone wanting to sit on your lap (although LH and I have discussed that, and he’s much better about it now), the idea of moving around in a little cone of isolation is very, very attractive.
One of the things that I’m learning to do, in this new sober reality, is claim my right to space. It’s difficult. It’s very difficult, because women are socialised to not need space. But I do, and so do you, and we all deserve it.
So, shut the door when you’re in the bathroom; the children will cope. Make your bedroom into a place you want to be, even if the lamp set-up isn’t exactly as your partner prefers. Walk the streets after dark, when it’s quiet. Tell people I am reading this book, I want to concentrate. Choose a corner of your home, paint it your favourite colour, and hang a string of fairy lights in it.
You deserve a room of your own.