real life

"I heard a strange scratching at my door": The unspoken fear some women feel living alone.

I was just drifting off to sleep when I heard the slightest scratch at my front door.

Instantly my body jolted awake and I lay frozen under the covers in my dark bedroom, straining to decipher the source of the suspicious noise without making any myself, even though the panicked thumping of my heart was in danger of waking up my entire apartment complex.

A few moments later I heard it again, a sound that might possibly be chalked up to a strong wind but just as easily could have been the noise of someone quietly testing the door handle and then pulling their hand back in shock as it unexpectedly creaked.

With a well-practised mind, I quickly went over the checklist I keep tucked away in my head for times like this when a rogue noise shakes me awake.

Was my front door locked? Yes, I’d triple checked it before I went to sleep and the chair I drag across it each night as an extra precaution was firmly tucked under the handle.

Were my house keys in my room with me? I quietly slid my hand out from under the covers and felt them safely in their usual place, on my bedside table sitting next to my fully charged phone.

Quickly I ran through everything else on my secret pre-sleep checklist- the windows were closed, the bedroom door was also locked tight – and only then did I feel my shoulders begin to unclench and my tense fingers slowly loosen their iron-clad grip on the blankets.

"With a well-practised mind, I quickly went over the checklist I keep tucked away in my head for times like this when a rogue noise shakes me awake". Image: iStock.

I'm sure that to many people looking in on my life from the outside, these sleep precautions might seem a little extreme. I'm also well aware they bring shame to the whole 'independent woman living alone' image I'm trying to cultivate. Over the years I've had more than a few people raise their eyebrows at me in surprise whenever I let slip about my fondness for a chair pushed across a door, there's just no way to sugar coat that particular quirk.

However, for many women who live alone, these are the constant thoughts and plans that spiral through your mind on a daily basis, with the same frequency as reminding yourself to buy fresh milk on your way home from work. It's a source of emotional labour that stays with you, even within the walls of your own home.

This fear of doors being forced open and strange faces lurking through dark windows is a common yet somewhat shameful state of mind many women live with, in my experience.

Shameful because statistically, being tucked up alone in your own bed is one of the safest places in this world you could ever be.

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Listen to Laura Brodnik and Clare Stephens talk about the personal response women have had to Unbelievable on Netflix.  

The data always tells us that you're much more likely to be harmed by someone you know or by walking through a dark area alone at night than you are within your own home.

So fearfully locking your doors in the evening feels like you are painting yourself as the weakest of women.

Much of this shame stems from the fact that there is still a hint of outdated stigma attached to the idea of a single woman living alone, the idea that this lone lady exists in a strange limbo of bland solo dinners and overly affectionate cats while she waits for her situation to change, and so admitting fear feels like admitting defeat.

It's a fear that largely lurked beneath the surface, in my circles at least, until this year when the Netflix series Unbelievable became the catalyst for these previously unspoken thoughts to bubble over into group conversations.

Netflix's Unbelievable, which is based on a true story that was chronicled in the Pulitzer Prize Marshall Project article An Unbelievable Story of Rape, tells the stories of multiple women who were raped in their bedrooms while home alone asleep at night with their doors all locked.

In one particularly disturbing section of the essay, the rapist even showed one of the victims just how easily he broke into her apartment, chiding her for not being more mindful of her own safety.

There are many chilling passages in this piece of journalism but one element that has always stayed with me ever since I read the essay and watched the series is the horrific ordeal these women went through while doing everything "right" with their safety, locked up in their homes at night.

This is not about placing unnecessary fear upon women or being alarmist or judgemental. It's about looking at the conversations that have emerged off the back of this series, with women talking more openly about the reality of how they live in this world.

Following the swell of interest in the real story of Unbelievable, the women in my circles who live alone slowly began to share the small steps they take so they can sleep with less fear at night.

"I have bells strung up across all of my windows, so I'll be sure to hear if someone tries to crawl through," said one. "I leave a podcast playing softly on the speaker in my living room at night and a lamp on while I sleep, so it always looks like there are people up and about," said another

"I only ever rent apartments that are on the highest floor of the building, that way I only ever have to be worried about someone coming through the front door, which I requested my landlord put an extra lock on.

"I walk home alone at night with my keys clutched upright in my hand and I've asked my neighbours to leave their outside lights on at night until I get home, so it lights the dark pathway between our homes.

"I push my bedframe slightly over so it sits across my bedroom door at night, that way I know for sure no one can get in."

As much as the story told in Unbelievable champions the fact that victims should never be held accountable for the actions of their attackers, it also highlights the idea that there's no shame in making yourself feel safe by any means necessary, even if it's as simple as rearranging your furniture each night.

If you live alone, how do you make yourself feel safe? Tell us in the comments below.

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