I am afraid of intimacy. I have been for as long as I can remember. I rarely confide in others, never reciprocate affection, and I avoid or sabotage every romantic opportunity that comes my way. I know I am the way that I am because of my childhood, one defined by alcoholism and marital dysfunction. As a child, I saw love as something conditional and easily taken advantage of, something that inspired you to act recklessly and against your own best interest. In my experience, vulnerability was something to be exploited, and letting someone else in left you at risk of being abused or abandoned.

My intimacy issues did not just stem from my home life, however, but also from the confusion and shame I felt over being gay. Growing up I was mercilessly bullied by my peers,  and as a weird-looking, effeminate boy, I was already lacking in the self-esteem department. My peers called me “gay” and “fag” on a daily basis, and when I approached my parents about the bullying, they told me to “stop acting gay” to fix the issue. As a result, I learned to think of being gay as synonymous with being wrong. I began to believe that I was responsible and deserving of poor treatment, and I convinced myself that the only way to fix the situation was to stop being gay, so I suppressed every thought and desire I had. In order to deal with my internalized feelings of shame, confusion, and dysfunction, I decided to be closed off and defensive, and to never depend on others or let them in. I shut down emotionally, and built a wall to protect myself from others—which has prevented me from fostering healthy relationships as an adult.

I didn’t know the full extent of my intimacy issues until I entered my first real relationship. It started off perfectly—I was in puppy love with a sweet and understanding guy who showed a kind of interest in me that no one had ever shown before, and who understood that I needed time to open up and become comfortable with intimacy.  For the first time in my life I felt attractive and wanted. I believed that all of my fears and issues I had internalized for years had faded away. But I was wrong. As time progressed, my intimacy issues didn’t improve at the rate I had hoped they would. I flinched every time my boyfriend reached for my hand in public, and found myself uncomfortable and resistant to ever have sex. It didn’t help that my low self-esteem had already led me to believe that I wasn’t good enough for him; my intimacy issues only made me feel even less worthy. Those feelings of insecurity then led me to believe I wasn’t worthy of my boyfriend’s love, and so I convinced myself that he didn’t really care about me, that he had just wanted a boyfriend and I was the placeholder until he could abandon me for someone better.

The moment he told me he loved me was the moment the relationship began to fully unravel.  I panicked at the idea of being loved because I didn’t think it could last. I couldn’t allow myself to love him back because I was afraid that once I did, once I let down all of my defenses, he would realize I wasn’t worthy of his love and leave. I was terrified the relationship would be a repeat of my parent’s one, or that he’d grow to see me the same way my peers did growing up and hate me. I began to subconsciously push him away to spare myself future hurt. Every time he tried to get me to open up, I closed up more. Every time he tried to reassure me or compliment me, I became distant, moody, or hostile. I treated him poorly because my toxic feelings of self-worth told me his compliments and reassurances were artificial and condescending. I refused to vulnerable with him because I didn’t want that vulnerability to be used against me, and I hesitated to have sex because I didn’t want him to have any sort of ownership of my body.  I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing me, so I made it impossible for him to.

I pushed him away because I was stubborn and afraid, afraid that if I let him in he wouldn’t like the person he found. And like any self-fulfilling prophecy, my belief that I wasn’t worthy of his love made it impossible for me to be loved. Every time he told me he “loved me” I found myself unable to breathe; every time he talked about the future I cringed. My depression and anxiety took root and never left.  And when the depression and anxiety became unmanageable, I ended the relationship, and swore off dating until I felt I was mentally prepared for it.

But I was foolish to think  that time would be enough to fix all of the deep-rooted issues I have. I gave myself two years to be single, and all it took was one date last month to reduce me to an anxiety-ridden, panic attack-having puddle. My previous relationship has scarred me in some ways. It led me to believe that I am not only unworthy of being loved, but that I am unable to give love on the most basic level. And now my anxiety stems from a fear that I will be alone my entire life because of my issues. I can’t get past my fear that I will lead someone on, that I will convince them I am capable of giving them love I can never really give, and end up the villain. When it comes to dating, I cannot live in the present because I am too fearful of what I see as an inevitable future implosion.

I’ve spent a lot of time these past two years thinking about my intimacy issues, and what I’ve learned is that time cannot solve my problems. My job and my social life cannot solve the issues I’ve been suppressing since childhood. I have to acknowledge that I have severe trust and abandonment issues and internalized shame to unpack. I have to acknowledge my low self-esteem, my anxiety, my depression, and my emotional baggage. I have to because I don’t want to rob myself of meaningful relationships or push away people who try to get me to open up. I don’t want to keep everyone at arm’s length because I am afraid of being hurt or abandoned. I want to be able to see love as a risk worth taking, and I want to learn to ignore the voices in my head that tell me I will wreck things because I don’t deserve them. I know I deserve to be happy just like I know I deserved to be loved. Now I just have to convince myself to feel that way.