Wednesday 17 January 2018

Girl, Uninterrupted: To stalk a crush online is emotional self-harm

Tanya Sweeney
Tanya Sweeney

The internet makes some things easier, but then other things become so much more unbearable.

Having a crush on someone used to be a harmless enough activity; something your mind might lean on at an idle point of the day. But what was once a pleasant daydream has now become a sort of torture. These days, the internet near enough facilitates stalking, so that a crush can become a full-on surveillance operation. And if this crush is unrequited, destined to be lost to the ether... well, we really are talking a whole new level of emotional self-harm.

Certainly, I'm no stranger to the gnawing ache of a crush that will ultimately go nowhere. Sometimes it seems like I lurch from one to the next in one unending masochistic spree. I remember the first time I ever threw the eye at someone. I was at a gig in the Rock Garden, aged about 15 and fresh from an afternoon of detention. I was intoxicated in general by loud music, boys with long stringy hair and the Russian roulette-style challenge of getting the last bus back to the suburbs. I should point out that I wasn't even drunk that evening: I'd had two pints of cider and, worried about feeling a little wobbly on my feet, I locked myself in the bathroom to double check my own name and address with myself. And that's when I saw him.

His face was all sculpted angles; his eyes kind and soulful, his buoyant, Disney- hero hair, like he'd just stepped out of a salon (unlikely, seeing as we were at a Pavement gig). I gawped silently until he stepped on my foot and said 'sorry'. It was like finding a sort of god. I spent months obsessing, projecting and speculating. We'd had a whole epic romance in my mind and I didn't even know his name.

A year later, aged 16 and by now a seasoned detention taker, the whole sorry 'unrequited crush' thing came into sharp focus. While with friends, I passed Disney-hero hair guy (we'll call him Ben) in the street. Electrified, my pals and I changed course, followed him into a pub where - because I had yet to develop any concept of caution, politesse or even common sense - I went straight up to him.

"I was at that gig, and I love music too," I offered, complimenting him on his obscure band T-shirt. He was aloof and passive-aggressive, his friends smirking in the background… until my very pretty, but ultimately very bland, prefect-style classmate loomed into view. Ben switched gears, ramping up the charm and becoming more gregarious and funny than even my dreams allowed him to be.

All I could do was watch as he became ever more adorable as he made a play for my classmate. Dejected, I went home, took one look at my very unadorned face in the mirror, and had a good long chat with myself. The gist: 'You don't have what these other girls have, so you're going to have to bring something else to the table. You'll have to become interesting.'

Not only that, I knew I would have to become interested too. Become enquiring of the world, its possibilities, its offerings and become a sort of equal to the men I wanted to date. I didn't have pretty or sexy, but with the right amount of tutelage, I could at least make a play for being cool and interesting.

Often we find ourselves looking up exs on Facebook
Often we find ourselves looking up exs on Facebook

And so, in time, I learned one of life's cruellest lessons: men don't care if you know about math, rock and Russian documentaries. They don't care if you're well-read or successful. A fondness for Westlife or Boyzone is something most men can overlook in a potential partner.

Decades later, I bumped into Ben and still do. He is still handsome, successful… and naturally, still has the sort of personality only a 15-year-old could find charming. I didn't pass muster back in the 90s, and even after decades of self-improvement and self-realisation, I don't pass muster with Ben now.

After scoffing at how uncool I was 20 years ago, it transpires that Ben likes his women unchallenging, sweet and conventionally pretty; an immediate signifier to the world at large of his ability to pull. I was never even in the stadium, much less in the race.

Ultimately, an unrequited crush is an exquisite type of agony. It enlivens people to create imaginary relationships with people they don't really know. Psychologists say that those who move from one ill-fated crush to the next actively enjoy the state of yearning, and the person on the receiving end of the crush is interchangeable. It's the feeling that's addictive in other words; not the person.

For teenagers, a crush is a dress rehearsal for the real thing. They teach us what we want and what we value. It's when crushes still happen in your 30s that you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. It's not healthy to have a mortgage, be in middle management and having a virtual stranger camping out in your brain. Trust me, I know.

Truthfully? I used to resent Ben for rejecting me. I'm even less proud to admit that I studied his current girlfriend on Facebook to decipher in just how many ways she was my equal or superior. But to do so is unfair on everyone. Ben can't help having a type, and while the rejection felt like a cruel slight, I doubt he gave it that much thought.

While an egoic part of me still wonders idly about what it would be like to finally seduce him, I'm very glad that my type is no longer 'what my 15-year-old self likes'. Praise be, I've moved on.

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