A few weeks ago, I watched a friend scroll Instagram until she settled on a low-gradient image. She stared intently at the photo, eyes wide, one hand over her mouth. “What is it?!” I asked. She passed me the phone. My hand, too, went immediately to my mouth.
The image was her ex at a family island reunion. Each person is swaddled in blindingly neon Lilly Pulitzer. One wears a Bumpit. All of their smiles show both the dental work and smugness of WASPy Connecticut finance folk. To top it off, the ex in question made the caption a joke about speaking to a server in the wrong language.
“Oh thank God,” my friend said with relief. “I’ve given myself The Ick.”
I only found out about The Ick terminology last summer, during an all-consuming Love Island binge where I became obsessed with British slang. Contestants would find themselves completely turned off by partners with whom they’d been happily coupled up. It always seemed sudden, this ultimate cringe feeling. As Leanne said in the villa: “I don’t want him to touch me, I don’t want him to kiss me, I just don’t want to be around the boy.” That’s The Ick.
While the phrase was new to me, the phenomenon certainly was not. I caught The Ick after a fling told me to “name five songs” if I REALLY liked Sylvan Esso. I caught it when a date told me his cats were jealous of “other women,” so I couldn’t come over to his apartment. I also caught The Ick for seemingly no reason at all. I was once sitting in a hammock for the millionth time with a boy I’d dated for months, only to be absolutely pummeled by a wave of revulsion. But he’s great! I argued with myself, even writing lists of his most noble qualities. These didn’t hold up, and I simply couldn’t help it — I hated every single thing he did. He hadn’t changed; there was just no coming back from The Ick.
The harder one tries to shove away these feelings, the stronger they emerge. The Ick-infected partner might try and take space from her counterpart, who in turn, might naively overcompensate. This is fertile ground for The Ick, which usually grows worse and never gets better.
Now that I’m dissecting it, I’m realizing The Ick might be a subconscious protector of sorts, this deep inner voice that knows something isn’t right before our rational brains can recognize what exactly that thing is. Sometimes we can later point to why — my friend’s Lilly-clad, problematic ex was obviously always at odds with her very cool and moral self. But other times, we never know why a person’s smallest mannerisms suddenly piss us off. The Ick is essentially a gut feeling.
So how does The Ick fare in the soul-crushing loneliness of this pandemic? These days it’s so familiar, so comforting, so much safer physically and mentally to reach out to a former flame, rather than seeking out a new one. I see my friends Venmo-ing heinous ex-flings for groceries, and I can’t even be mad. We’ve been quarantined for almost a full year now. Isolation is a temporary poultice for The Ick, even if not a sustainable one.
The emphasis there is on temporary, which hopefully all of this is. Just know The Ick is what’s inevitable.