Three Topics

There are a few topics I think are worth looking into, for people generally, and probably particularly so for people who have been traumatized or are dealing with some form of dysfunction.

I am just going to name them and maybe throw in a couple of links as starting points if anyone is interested.

(I am not a mental health professional, these are just things I have personally found valuable in understanding some things I have experienced, as well as understanding some people of my acquaintance. I can’t vouch for the quality of the material I have personally found valuable in terms of how a person with a professional understanding of the subjects would evaluate them, just offer that they explain these things in pretty clear terms, from my perspective.)

The first topic is compulsive repetition of trauma (and its relationship to PTSD and CPTSD).

 

The first link is to a survivor’s blog with a brief piece on the topic:

https://ptsdme.blogspot.com/2005/12/betrayal-bonds-trauma-repitition.html

 

The second link is to an article by Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who has done a lot of work on PTSD. It is a little longer and more clinical in its discussion than the previous link, if that is something that might be of interest to you:

http://www.cirp.org/library/psych/vanderkolk/

 

The second topic is narcissistic abuse. (In learning about it you will likely also come across information about narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder, and less often, it seems, histrionic personality disorder, which can be confusing to distinguish. They used to be categorized together as “Cluster B Personality Disorders,” but I believe that has changed recently. And depending on the source, it also seems like the term can apply to these behaviors even when the person has one of those disorders other than narcissistic personality disorder. And in my opinion, narcissistic abuse seems like a predictable set of behaviors that are psychologically/emotionally abusive, so just from one human being to another, even if a person is not engaging in the full array of behaviors, or does not fit a dignosable disorder, it does not mean you have to dismiss the behavior as not abusive. And in any case, learning about psychological/emotional abuse more generally might also be useful. Lastly, I would add that whatever the most prevailing narratives might be, abuse is not limited to certain kinds of relationships. Could be a parent, a sibling, a child – whether a young child abusing other children, or the adult child of an ageing parent; it could be another family member, a spouse, a friend, a member of the clergy, a healthcare provider or caregiver, a roommate, a family friend, a stranger, an employer, a government official…not by any means a comprehensive list of possible relationships, but just bear in mind that abuse is about the behavior, not the person’s title.)

 

 

There is a lot of material out there, and reading pieces written by survivors is particularly illuminating, I think, but for a summary introduction, a portion of the Wikipedia entry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissistic_abuse) on the subject seems like a good starting point. Narcisstic abuse also happens to children (“Parental narcissistic abuse is where parents require the child to give up their own wants and feelings in order to serve the parent’s needs for esteem”), but I chose the excerpt about adult relationships because it goes into motive somewhat, defines narcissistic supply, and gives examples of some of the specific abusive behaviors:

“Narcissistic abuse may also occur in adult-to-adult relationships, where the narcissistic person tends to seek out an empathetic partner in order to gain admiration of their own attributes and feelings of power and control – narcissistic supply. The narcissist creates a dynamic abuser and victim relationship through a cycle of abuse resulting in traumatic bonding that makes it hard for their partner to leave the increasingly abusive relationship.

People with codependent-type traits may seek relationships with narcissists.

The narcissists’ relationships are characterized by a period of intense involvement and idealization of their partner, followed by devaluation, and a rapid discarding of the partner. Alternatively, that scenario can loop, with ghosting (ceasing communication with the codependent) and hoovering (luring the codependent back) instead of discarding. At the beginning of a relationship (or its new cycle) with a narcissist, the partner is only shown the ideal self of the narcissist, which includes pseudo-empathy, kindness, and charm. Once the partner has committed to the relationship (e.g., through marriage or a business partnership), the true self of the narcissist will begin to emerge. The initial narcissistic abuse begins with belittling comments and grows to contempt, ignoring behavior, adultery, triangulation (forming any relationship triangles), sabotage, and, at times, physical abuse.

At the core of a narcissist is a combination of entitlement and low self-esteem. These feelings of inadequacy are projected onto the victim. If the narcissistic person is feeling unattractive they will belittle their romantic partner’s appearance. If the narcissist makes an error, this error becomes the partner’s fault. Narcissists also engage in insidious, manipulative abuse by giving subtle hints and comments that result in the victim questioning their own behavior and thoughts. This is termed gaslighting. Another common abusive tactic is underhanded public humiliation, when the narcissist says something seemingly neutral but offensive to the victim and enjoys the emotional reaction. This is called dog-whistling. Any slight criticism of the narcissist, whether actual or perceived, often triggers narcissistic rage and full-blown annihilation from the narcissistic person. This can take the form of screaming tirades, silent treatment or quiet sabotage (setting traps, refusing communication, hiding belongings, spreading rumors, etc.).

The discard phase can be swift and occurs once the narcissistic supply is obtained elsewhere. In romantic relationships, the narcissistic supply can be acquired by having affairs. The new partner is in the idealization phase and only witnesses the ideal self; thus once again the cycle of narcissistic abuse begins. Narcissists do not take responsibility for relationship difficulties and exhibit no feelings of remorse. Instead they believe themselves to be the victim in the relationship as because of their self-debasing projections, their partner can only ever fail to meet their expectations.”

 

There are more MedCircle videos on YouTube on this and related subjects; there is also a channel called “Surviving Narcissism” that has a variety of clips on the topic, as well:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIELB1mz8wMKIhB6DCmTBlw/featured

 

The third topic is a strategy advocated for by some survivors (I have no idea what, if any, mental health professionals endorse the idea) or narcissistic abuse referred to as “gray rock.” Whatever its actual value or not as a survival strategy, I think its description is also pretty useful in understanding some of the relationship dynamics involved around  narcissistic abuse.

https://www.thriveafterabuse.com/going-gray-rock/

I hope some of this will be useful to someone, whether just in being aware of some things should they ever cross your path, or that may be be relevant to someone you care about, or because you are already experiencing some form of abuse (maybe the often-hard-to-pin-down kind of abuse that is psychological/emotional), or because you might be living with a personality disorder yourself. For those fortunate enought to have access to mental healthcare, a lot of the mental health professionals talk about therapy both for people with personality disorders, and for people who have been in abusive or otherwise dysfunctional relationships. If you have experienced abuse or other trauma, whether or not you also engage in abusive behaviors, and the option is available, you might find it helpful to choose a provider who specializes in trauma, as such a person might be more competent in dealing with a person with such a background in a sensitive manner – whatever the profession, its practioners are only human, and have human limitations, including some not be great at everything, and some just being bad at their jobs, or having unhelpful biases. You don’t have to give up if your first attempt is not a good fit, it is okay to change providers and find someone you are comfortable with so you have a better experience.

I am neither condoning abuse in any circumstance, nor am I condemning all people living with such personality disorders as abusers. (If there is any such data available on the overall rates of abuse perpetrated by people with these types of personality disorders, I have not come across it yet; but I have seen it mentioned repeatedly that such people are often victims of abuse themselves at some point in life. And again, the latter does not negate such behavior as abuse when committed by a person who has also been victimized.)

For those people I have known who have been diagnosed with one of the formerly-Cluster-B disorders, or those I suspect would be if they sought treatment and were honest with their mental healthcare providers, I have never gotten the impression that they are particularly happy or at peace. On the contrary, I have always felt those people of my acquaintance seem to be trapped in a pattern that keeps them from experiencing the very things they seem to long for.

And for those who have experienced such abusive behaviors, many seem to have a hard time naming the abuse as such (and that has seemed to be the case both in those who seem to have in turn engaged in such abusive behaviors toward others, as well as those who have not). And often people who love the people who are engaging in abusive behaviors wish to help them, as the pain behind such behavior is often obvious (though it really does seem to me that it is only a mental health professional who is really going to be of help in that regard – I believe the impulse to help and focus on the suffering of the person engaging in abusive behavior, rather than the suffering by the abusive behavior, as often seems to happening when the person suffering abuse has experienced such abuse in the past, often prolongs and worsens a person’s experience of being abused. And it is just damned difficult to communicate if the other person is dishonest and/or manipulative).

This bit is a strictly-in-my-own-non-professional-opinion bit: I have noticed, over the course of my life, that many people who engage in behaviors that fit the description of narcisstic abuse in adulthood still seem to also be susceptible to being abused in that manner, whether by those people who are presumably the source of the abuse in their formative years (and the root of developing such behaviors in themselves), often parents or other realtives with whom they maintain relationships, but also with peers or partners.

In my experience, those who engage in such behaviors seem to primarily focus them on one or a few people, and mostly maintain a facade with others; and as the abuse seems to tend to be focused around perceived disparities in power, the person tends to focus the abusive behavior on a person or persons whom they perceive as weak or vulnerable relative to themself, but when they come into contact with a person who engages in similarly abusive behaviors they perceive to be stronger or more powerful than themselves, they can revert to the role of being the person suffering the abuse. I have not seen any mental health professional discuss this as of yet, but I am just adding the observation in the event that there is a person you have a difficult time viewing as abusive when they engage in the behavior because you have witnessed them being subjected to similar abuse.

I would also add, again, just in my opinion, that I would guess that virtually everyone in this former-cluster of disorders, as well as those prone to being in relationships with such people (like sufferers of similar abuse in childhood), likely would be diagnosed as having PTSD (or, in my opinion, likelier still,  CPTSD, where practioners recognizes that as a discrete diagnosis).

I certainly wish I could offer the professional level of insight and advice here, but as one human being who has lived through some shit (and loved a lot of people who have been, too), whoever you are, whatever you are going through, I hope you will reach out and find some help, and allow yourself to believe that you can change your life for the better with the right help, some hard work on your part, and enough time.

For those without access to adequate mental healthcare, I would imagine good starting points might be some hotlines, like the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY); The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (which explicitly states it is “…for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals,” so keep it in mind that if you are not actively suicidal, or you are concerned about someone else in your life who may be, it is still okay to call); and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline, 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). They are anonymous, so also a plus for those who are hesitant to share with people they know, or who might find their own possible support groups negatively impacted by a person engaging in abusive behavior of the “smearing/sabtoaging” kind.  These hotlines also have websites, if you prefer to look around that way, they all seem to offer some other informational resources, as well as alternate ways to contact them:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is at https://www.thehotline.org/

They offer a live chat feature, though as all organizations that deal with abuse tend to do, the first thing their site shows is a pop up “Safety Alert: Computer use can be monitored and is impossible to completely clear. If you are afraid your internet usage might be monitored, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.” So proceed with due caution if you are concerned a person who is abusing you might have access to your computer, whether physically, or remotely through some form of malware -the latter can also go for your cellphone, unfortunately. (https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/05/victims-of-domestic-violence-challenged-by-abusers-using-technology.html)

(Use your judgement. Maybe a phone at a friend’s home, or get a burner phone if you are able – these are strictly my own thoughts, but I would guess a landline that does not belong to you or the person who is abusive, where they won’t see a number on a bill, possibly, or in caller ID, would be the safest bet.)

They also offer additonal options: “Advocates who are deaf are available Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (PST) by videophone (855-812-1001), instant messenger (DeafHotline) or email (deafhelp@thehotline.org).”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ (They also offer a chat feature: the link is a little easy to miss, it is in the upper right hand corner of the homepage, right next to the phone number, and to the left of the search tool).

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is at https://www.nami.org/

They offer a lot of information and resources; they also have a text option, Text NAMI to 741741, or you can email them at info@nami.org

Whatever it is you may have suffered, or be suffering, be it the sort of abuse talked about here, or other forms, you didn’t, and don’t, deserve it. Even if you have inflicted suffering on another person, you don’t deserve to suffer (though that does not change that those to who you behave abusively toward suffer because of it, and they don’t deserve it, either).

I hope you will find your courage (and I know it is there, because to behave abusively or be vulnerable to repetition of suffering abuse both suggest you almost certainly were abused yourself, and here you are, alive and kicking and reading some rando lady’s blog – or maybe not rando to you, in which case, hello, person I know, I hope you are well, and if you are not, I hope you reach out, to me, if I am a trusted person and you are someone who is, in my judgement, safe for me to communicate with, or to someone else who is trusted and to whom you do not represent a lack of safety, whether someone in your personal life, or a hotline, or a mental health professional).

In any case, you are alive.

That makes you a survivor.

You may well have been little and helpless and put through hell, and still, here you are.

That takes strength.

It takes strength to do what would otherwise be small things when your fight or flight is all fucked up and may even be kind of constantly switched on, or alternately, when you may not feel like you can feel much of anything.

It takes strength to admit you are scared or need help, especially when you may have learned early on those things meant danger. Especially when you might have to ask many times before someone helps. Especially when some people, even people in “helping professions,” might be the kind of people who seek positions of power to take advantage of vulnerable people. Use your judgement. Acknowledge when someone makes you uncomfortable. And if someone does exploit your vulnerability, know it is their wrong, not yours. Keep asking for help. Find people who will prove worthy of trust over time. Seek out support groups of other survivors. Find what works for you. Just try. There are loads of resources, and lots of survivors and resources online, too. There are blogs and discussion groups. It is okay to take small steps, to start out where you are just looking at information, not engaging with a person.

It takes strength to admit you fucked up and hurt someone else, especially if you learned early on that you were not “allowed” to fuck up in even the most inconsequential way without being subjected to intolerable pain. Especially when on some level you know hurting someone else is not an inconsequential fuck up. Especially if you have decided what happened when you got hurt was unforgivable, and that the person who hurt you deserves bad things. Hard to admit out loud that you have done the same kind of hurting, then, since by your own rationale you are unforgivable and deserve bad things. But those are feelings, not logic, not reality. Maybe the people you have hurt won’t forgive you – but you can still stop hurting them. You can walk away from the relationship without doing any more harm. You can stop putting yourself back into one role in a dynamic you probably grew up longing to escape. And you can, in that way, finally free yourself from a life with regular violence in it. And you can work with a professional who can help you – but you have to be willing to be honest with them.

If you are able to bear hearing some really specific details of childhood abuse described, and of the violence that adult engaged in as he grew up, I very much recommend Sammy Rangel’s TEDx talk, “The Power of Forgiveness.”

 

Or you can look up his organization, The Forgiveness Project (https://www.theforgivenessproject.com/)

He can stand as an example of a person who suffered violence, caused others to suffer – and himself to continue to suffer – by inflciting violence on others, and who found a way to leave violence behind. If you believe your experiences were too extreme – his experiences were quite extreme. If you believe you have done too much harm to change – he did a great deal of harm, and has reached a place where he can not only own it, but where he has ceased to engage in violence. Just if you need to maybe see a little evidence, some example, of hope.

It takes strength not to revert to habitual bad behaviors that are the only ways of coping with fear and pain you know – whether they are abusive of others, self-destructive, or both. There are other ways, and you can learn, and those ones don’t cause you or anyone else injury. And they don’t leave you feeling like you are divided inside between the ugly truths and the supposedly pretty lies that cover them.

And just because your nervous system got fucked up and/or you never learned how to relate to people in healthy ways, or got help dealing with your damage, doesn’t change that you are a human being, you being hurt was wrong, and you can try to get help, and learn, and heal as much as is possible for you.

Treat yourself as worth the effort.

I wish you all the best, and that you find people closer to you than a stranger, and sources of information and assistance better than some rando lady’s blog, to help you on your journey. And it is a journey. And the road out of hell can be unpleasantly scenic and winding, and it may bring you through similar territories (or worse ones), but it truly does beat just remaining in the same ring of the inferno indefinitely. Same pit, different day is no way to live your life. Even if you start with the teeniest of steps, you are still on your way. Fucking up is not just allowed, it is inevitable. If you accept that, and don’t give up when you stumble, and don’t let yourself off the hook for hurting someone, and don’t blame yourself for being hurt, and get what help you can, I believe you can find your way out.

From my road to yours, I wish you good luck.

 

 

 

 

Forgivemas

I am thinking about truth.

About thought and action.

About the significance of words.

About the meaningless of words in contrast with behavior.

About secrets and lies. About dishonesty.

About the frequency with which the words “can’t” and “I don’t have a choice” get spoken, and how seldom they are true.

About the meaning and meaninglessness of feelings that are claimed, proclaimed, but not acted upon.

About trauma and fear and cruelty and coping and dissuasion and narrative.

About cruelty. And abuse.

About prolonged immaturity/infancy self-styled as superiority.

(Wikipedia is a little dainty about the role also known as “The Royal Finger” – it means the guy who wiped the king’s butt for him, like a baby’s.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groom_of_the_Stool)

I am thinking about how we use pleasures as substitutes for meaning. For love, joy, purpose, belonging.

About delusions of control and illusions of powerlessness.

About what people imagine power to be. About what power actually is.

About superstition. About a mostly futile wish that “what” can be changed or limited or made wholly impossible by “who,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “want.”

About context and perspective.

About how giving – not trading, not transacting, not exchanging, but giving as in “gift” – can so easily awaken us to how much change we can affect.

About “Loss is one thing, but regret, quite another.”

 

 

About the difference between regret and remorse.

About “What we do now echoes in eternity” (Marcus Aurelius, or, in slightly paraphrased form, both St. Mark and Banksy). And “In the line of eternity, what does this matter?” (https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-news/the-subversive-joy-of-stephen-colbert-106698/)

 

 

About the inescapable interconnectedness of all life, and the unbelievable stupidity and destructiveness of pretending it isn’t so. About the reality of ubiquitous interdependence, and the destructive myth of the “rugged individual.” And the equally destructive myths of flawlessness, of flawless humanity, of unforgivability and unlovability.

(https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/06/03/i-pencil-leonard-read/)

About isolation and addiction.

About the rise of selfishness and self-pity and self-justification, and the fall of generosity and empathy and compassion.

About relentless rationalization, in defiance of all reasonable evidence of its failure to convince anyone its fabrications are true, not even the self it emanates from.

About the difference in meaning, and realistic disconnect, between “earn,” “deserve,” and “have.”

About hypocrisy.

About how one hurt cannot undo another.

About “… grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned…”     (The Peace Prayer of St. Francis)

About how suffering is not inherently a source of cruelty or failure or wisdom or success – how luck and choice play a part in what each of us do with the pains we experience.

About sorrow and happiness. About “To everything there is a season…” (Ecclesiastes, or Pete Seeger/The Byrds, according to your preference.)

 

 

About “…happiness exists in action; it exists in telling the truth and saying what your truth is; and it exists in giving away what you want the most.”

 

 

About forgiveness.

 

About “Everything you done to me, you already done to yourself.”    (The Color Purple)

 

About “And my turning point came with this next question: ‘Sammy, have you ever hurt anyone the way your mother has hurt you?'” (https://www.theforgivenessproject.com/)

 

 

About “…forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different.”

 

 

About what it means to defend. To protect. To sacrifice. To love.

It is Christmas, after all, a day with a pretty wide range of connotation, depending largely on individual context.

And I am trying very hard, for a combination of selfish and selfless reasons, not to respond with anger, where anger feels a wholly appropriate emotional response to some spectacularly shitty behavior.

If we will exercise the minimal restraint required not to gratify our anger in an instant, and spend some actual time and energy on trying to figure out what is right, and why people behave badly the way they do, including ourselves, it is actually pretty easy to make the leap from fuck-these-selfish-spoiled-cruel-narcissistic-assholes to some less profanity-riddled, more inquisitive, and potentially more useful thoughts.

I have no idea where I first heard the idea that anger is not a primary, but rather a secondary emotion, one that we tend to use to mask feelings we are more uncomfortable with, the ones we experience as unpleasant and powerless, fear and sadness, particularly. I don’t know what the basis of the speaker’s assertion was, but I do know it stuck with me because it rings so true.

Anger is an emotion, from my perspective, that has a lot of power-hype, but is really a show of vulnerability or weakness. Fight is a fear response. Fear is a survival-threat response. Whatever our cultural narratives about anger and its companion action, violence (which is more varied, I believe, than the limited array of actions we are conditioned to label that way), it seems pretty clear that those things have little to nothing to do with strength. Strength is what is required to do what is difficult, not a descriptor of what is easily, speedily self-gratifying.

What does this all have to do with Christmas? Well, for a start, it means working today to manage my own fear and sadness in a way that doesn’t involve me texting “Go fuck yourself” to anyone. Trying to understand the hype and the subtext of the varied meanings assigned to the day. Trying to understand why so many people seem to fail to try to understand.

It means minding my own hypocrisy.

It means putting in the effort not to leave myself trapped in the myopic perspective of an endless present of pain that comes with a fear response. Survival-mode means now; prolonged survival-mode makes now feel timeless. Like an inescapable eternity. Like hell.

It means considering the relative value of survival strategies and coping behavior that have short-term and long-term value, and how to make the best of the former til the latter, which tend to be more time-consuming to achieve efficacy, can be fully realized. About not falling into the trap of treating short-term strategies as long-term sustainable.

It means being grateful I held back my angrily reactive thumbtyping to insensitivity that was hurtful, whether it was consciously or thoughtlessly cruel, and spent the day considering, and ultimately affirming, why that was the right choice to make.

I am glad I held my thumbs. Because this might bring me no greater kindness, but I am fairly certain it has done me a world more good than “Go fuck yourself” would have done.

I hope today brought you some joy. If not, I hope you made the choice to seek some perspective instead of adding your own contribution to the sum total of human misery. And if you didn’t, that you will accept that as long as you are alive, it is not too late, and decide differently, now, or in the future.

 

 

Tiny Breakthrough (Temporarily Defeating the Metaphorical Flamethrower Bear With Profanity)

For want of anything else to do with everything that is causing my crushing anxiety, I just opened a document with the thought of writing something, and having nothing to say, pretty much just typed nonsense (okay, profanity), and, oddly, while I was doing that, I felt a lot more relaxed.

I am going to guess because it took enough of my conscious, chatter-box brain’s attention to type words to distract it from focusing on any source of stress. Maybe the swear-iness also helped, since those are words habitually associated with venting negative feelings.

Just putting this out there, on the chance it is useful to anyone else.

Give it a shot.

Maybe typing “What in the fucking fucking fucking fuck of fucking fucking fucked up fuck ups fuck ups fuck ups fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck…” will also be of use to you.

Or you could pick a less swear-y repetition. “All the puppy puppying puppies time the puppies puppy puppily puppytime…” might work better for you.

Hell, if you are scientific-method-ly-minded, try both, and see if one or the other feels more helpful. Maybe throw in a third neutral word (since puppies might have some positive or negative emotional resonance for you), like typing “and” over and over, for point of comparison.

This was a random discovery on my part, so no idea if it will actually be useful to anyone else, or even for me again, but as anyone who feels like they are drowning in a relentlessly rising tide of shit well knows, like twenty seconds of peace can be heaven, since “anxiety” is, as far as I am concerned, just a euphemism for “survival response,” which is, in turn, a euphemism for “death-threat response,” which really should be what we call it, since that is, you know, what it is, and how it feels.

Saying you feel “anxious” diminishes the reality that you are trying to accomplish what, in better mental and emotional climes, would be mundane tasks, while your entire body (your brain is a part of your body, and that we tend to pretend that is not so based on the Western world’s raging, multi-century boner for Cartesian dichotomy and mind-body divide strikes me as stupidly self-destructive) is screaming:

“HOLY SHIT, IT IS A BEAR WITH A FLAMETHROWER, RUN, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, GET A STICK AND HIT THE BEAR WITH IT, DO SOMETHING, DO ANYTHING, DO IT NOW, LIE DOWN AND PLAY DEAD, OFFER TO BUY THE BEAR A DRINK, STAND STILL LIKE A STATUE, SOMETHING, WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW OR WE ARE GOING TO DIE!!!!!

(For those who use the misleading term “fight-or-flight” for what I term the death-threat response –  or, if you prefer, murder-response – I included a variety of bear-related mentions of all of the elements of said response, which are, to my non-professional knowledge, freeze, flop, friend, flee, and fight.

Also, so far as I am aware, freeze is the most common survival response, just fyi. If some bad shit happened to you, and you think you are weak or cowardly or somehow complicit in whatever bad thing happened because you couldn’t move, you can let that shit go – your survival brain was at the wheel, and that is its favored move. Happens, apparently, to most people who face down death – and with anything that physically endangers you, I don’t imagine survival brain drawing distinctions between death and other injury. Prior to antibiotics, a scratch could be the death of you, and evolution moves at a snail’s pace – there is no rationally believing the oldest parts of the brain do a recent-advances-in-medicine-check before going to defcon-flamethrowerbear when our physical safety is threatened. Seriously, from a second-hand-therapist mention, the part of your brain that is responsible for your anxiety/survival/fight-or-flight/death-threat/murder-response does not understand language.)

I hope the nonsensical repetitive writing trick might be helpful to you, and also hope you know to apply it only when you are dealing with a phantom flamethrower bear; if something in your immediate vicinity is actually threatening you with bodily harm, typing “fuck” over and over seems pretty unlikely to be helpful. Then again, I am no more a self-defense expert than I am a mental-health professional, so really, in either case, you should bear (flamethrower-bear-pun accidental, but acknowledged) my limitations in mind as you assess your actual- vs. phantom-bears, and respective strategies for dealing with said (hopefully) metaphorical bears.

Dear Kath, (10)

Dear Kath,

Today is one of those days when I just feel sad, which I tell myself at first is for seemingly no reason, even though if I allow myself to think about it, there are many reasons. I just don’t want to think about them. I don’t want to feel sad. Which I know, intellectually, is counterproductive, I know if I just let it out, it would probably pass, and in trying to avoid what I already feel, I am just prolonging it. And I probably never would have articulated this outside of writing to you.

I really, really, really wish you were here. I wish I could spend Christmas with you. I wish you could help me. I wish someone who is still alive who I miss would surprise the hell out of me by putting aside their selfish fears and giving a damn about healing the pain they cause. I wish a lot of things, and feel sadder thinking about them, because imagining the people I miss actually acting to help me and not hurt me feels unlikelier than you returning from the dead.

I don’t know whether that I miss them is a reflection of self-loathing or, you know, “the voices of my better angels.” I tend to err on the side of the latter, because I think one of the worst things we allow to arise from people behaving unkindly is choosing to kill off our own kindness.

I do know I would give anything to be pleasantly surprised by them. By one of them, even. I would love to live to see someone I love, who has done me harm, put down their armor and just say “I’m sorry. I was scared. I fucked up. I am working to do better. And I am holding myself to my word.” I hope I get to live that experience one day. I want them to believe that is worth doing. I want them to believe they themselves are worth the path that feels more difficult in the short-term. I want them to believe they can be forgiven. I want them to believe honesty can actually bring a good outcome. I want to believe the same for myself.

I want to go home, Kath, and everything that meant is gone. Including you. God, I want to go home. If I could have you back, that is what I would choose above all. Hell, if bringing you back meant taking your place without getting to see you again, I would still choose your return. I would give anything for you to get to live the long life you wanted and deserved.

I don’t know, Kath. I don’t know if this is helping today, except that missing you is one of the reasons for my sadness, and allowing myself to think about you might help in that regard. I am pretty sure it is a dream that the ones I love and miss will ever read this, much less give a fuck about it, at least beyond where it might make them feel good to know they are loved and missed, to where it would make a difference for me. I wish they would, but knowing they almost certainly won’t, I need to say it, anyway. Because it is how I feel. It is the pain I am suspended in, and probably will be until the hope slowly dissolves the more time passes, leaving something else in its place.

I miss you with everything I am, Kathleen. Thank you for allowing me the space to grieve.

Love,

Lisa

Happy Hellidays

The impending holidays have me in a darkly pensive frame of mind, and coherent cultural critique requires focus, and is not a timely way to accomplish what I would like to, as the holidays are in full swing – a turn of phrase that might call dancing to mind, if the holidays are a time with some joy in them for you, and that might call to mind dangling from the end of a rope, if it is a time that feels like it exists to enhance your misery.

That is not meant to be a cruel joke – for people who are lonely and depressed, the relentless tide of supposed cheer can escalate those feelings of isolation and sadness. I knew someone who ended her life on a new year’s eve. I wish no one ever felt that way, but people do, and denying it does not help.

Which is, in all, why I want to skip the lengthier attempt to reason out why the things that are wrong with this time of year are what they are, and instead just address people on either side of the holiday-having divide. With the caveat that I am just a person, I am not a shrink or a saint. I can’t heal you or prescribe to you or save you. I am not in a position to offer more than the words on the screen, in the hope that maybe I can make the season a little less miserable for you, and if at all possible, maybe a little happier.

If you are someone who has loved ones to spend the holidays with, someone who has a safe, comfortable home that is decorated, and houses holiday gifts, and maybe serves as the site of a holiday event, you might be feeling your own negative feelings this time of year. Maybe you put pressure on yourself to be the perfect host, perfect Santa. I have been that person, when I was young and struggling to fill a role I could not, and felt the pressure of performing in a family in which love was incredibly conditionally and inconsistently given (which I didn’t understand was not actually love). And I can understand those feelings. Especially when, as is inevitable, there is someone in your awareness who has more. Who can buy more gifts, or more expensive gifts. Who has a bigger house. Whose family has more on-the-surface successes or apparent happiness.

Every person, even the most decent, I think, has a touch of narcissism – we spend all of our time with ourselves, and we spend, most likely, too much time thinking about ourselves. And the kind of pain associated with over-achieving holiday hosting is not inescapable pain, it is chosen pain. We don’t have to do all the things. There is almost certainly no fatal consequence to not doing them. That someone in your family might be displeased is not, most likely, a true survival threat, and would merely be unpleasant – and probably less unpleasant than having a stress heart-attack while trying to make home-made eggnog.

Beyond that, the kind of stress that comes from having in excess and over-achieving is also a pain rooted in only focusing our attention on others who have (or seem to have) more than we do – meaning the kind of focus on others that is really still just a focus on ourselves, the kind that fuels the masochistic pleasure of self-pity, not empathy and compassion. The latter comes from looking at those who have less – unhappier families, no family, less money, no money, unsafe homes, no homes. If we choose not to look at those whose inescapable suffering diminishes our ability to throw self-pity parties, we keep ourselves locked in unhealthy behaviors, in unnecessary misery, in lives that are bound to be less happy and fulfilled.

If the suggestion that you don’t have to make dinner for fifty even if your mother-in-law will be a real bitch about it has you ready to scream that I don’t get it, you don’t have a choice, well, you are kind of proving my point. That the way you are approaching the holiday isn’t just dismissive of the pain of people in truly dire circumstances, it is not making you happy.

This is one of the thing that most mystifies me about the financial and social systems that exist the world over – even the people who benefit the most from those systems don’t seem to be happy. Many, if not all, seem to be straight up miserable.

Participation in the holidays are, by and large, at least in our non-theocracy, a matter of choice for those with the means to participate. And many choose to participate at the cost of their happiness.

We all make choices. If your choice is to drive yourself to distraction trying to please people , people who would prefer that you drive yourself to distraction to please them than that you also be happy, well, that is your choice. But I do hope you will at least consider whether that is a good choice, a choice you want to make for yourself.

And if you have the means to give, I would ask you to consider maybe giving where it will not be demanded, or taken for granted, or unappreciated – there are people in your community whose lives would actually be changed for the better by a benevolent stranger paying their heating bill or getting rid of a credit card debt. There are multitudes of critical and underfunded services for people who are suffering that would make good use the fifty dollars you spent on an iTunes gift card that your nephew threw in the trash. There are loads of people on platforms like GoFundMe in desperate need of help to survive tragedies. Hell, there are people in your own life who would be absolutely thrilled to be invited to your house for a holiday affair of wearing pajamas and being provided with wine and takeout while appreciating your beautiful Christmas decorations, who would appreciate generosity that did not require you to suffer even a little stress-baldness.

If the holidays really are about generosity and celebration, about spreading cheer and kindness, and not about keeping up appearances or fulfilling a role that causes you pain, or if you would like them to be, there is still time to make different choices. The kind that don’t just make other people happy, but that will bring you happiness, too. Even if you never get to see the people you’ve helped, you get to know that you, you, had the power to change a life for the better, and did. And that is the point of giving. To do what kindness you can, because you can. A gift is something freely given. Not in the expectation of anything in return – including gratitude. A transaction is not a gift.

And if you are someone for whom the holidays feel like an in-your-face, sadistic reminder of all that you wish you had, but don’t, well, I feel you, too. I have spent more than one Christmas alone. I may again. I know what it is like to live on a razor’s edge of survival. I know what it is like to lose everything you have. I know what it is like to live with violence. I know what it is like to lose all of the people you love most. I know that if you are included as a lone afterthought in some other family’s holiday, it can be lonelier than spending the day alone, because on the holiday (everyday, really), we all tend to want to be where we feel we belong, and when we don’t, the sadness of watching people from the sidelines who have what you don’t can be what it feels like the holidays are about.

I can’t promise you that some kind-hearted soul will come along and invite you into a celebration where you will feel truly welcomed and included. Or that your estranged family will be visited by three ghosts in the night and wake up new, kinder people ready to make amends and bring longed-for love into your life. Or that Santa will drop a bag of cash from his sleigh that will free you from your survival fears and enable you to get a last-minute tree and gifts for your kids. Or that the person who broke your heart will experience a change in their own, and reach out to you, and take away the feeling that you ceased to exist when they ceased to acknowledge you.

I am not going to be the asshole blowing thoughts-and-prayers-and-unfounded-optimism up your ass. Grief is hard. Poverty is hard. Loneliness is hard. Living with trauma or its after-effects is hard. I know it myself, and if you are reading on because the miserable-holidays speaks to you, I am pretty secure in saying you know it, too. I am not expecting a merry anything this year. And that sucks. But I am expecting I will wake up in late February when this long run of holidaying is over, and still be here to fight and hope and, everything-willing, be happy another day. I have lived through many of the god-I-wish-this-would-kill-me experiences, and they sucked as hard as that hyphenated run of words suggests, but I lived. I live. I intend to keep living.

I hope it helps you to know there are other people who aren’t going to be happily blowing lines off Santa’s ass, or having an old-fashioned family money fight in the solarium this holiday season. That you aren’t the only person who wishes it was March already, and you would be free til November of the have/have-not-idays. Maybe if you look around, you will find someone else in your life who will want to spend the helliday with you. Maybe, however fucked your life is, you still have the ability to help someone else who is as bad – or worse – off. Truly, even when you are down, it is possible to help, and there is something reaffirming about connecting meaningfully with another human being. We are, like it or not, social animals. It is how we evolved, how we survived, how we still survive. And it is hard to feel powerless or worthless or hopeless when your actions make a positive difference in another life.

Even if you end up spending the holidays crying into the whiskey you are pretending is egg nog while “I’ll be home for Christmas” plays on a loop, you can still switch to water, get some sleep, and wake up to the relief of days that have no sad emotional resonance. If the whiskey-nog brings you to contemplating what the unfortunate soul I knew did, who ended her own life on a holiday about new beginnings, because, I suppose, she couldn’t imagine such things when she had so many powerful losses in the recent past, please remember that there are hotlines you can call, where total strangers willingly listen to people in their darkest moments, because there are, in fact, some decent human beings out there, and not everything good is out of reach to those who aren’t lucky enough to have love and money. (The suicide hotline number in the U.S., by the way, is 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-273-TALK.)

There is little in this world more valuable than the support of a compassionate human being when we feel alone and lost and ready to give up. And that is something you can have. I hope if you need it, you will call. Even if you aren’t actively suicidal, you can still call and talk to someone at the National Suicide Hotline. And there are other hotlines and warm lines out there, as well, with people who will advise you about escaping abuse, or who are fellow sufferers of addiction or mental illness, and a myriad of other options.

I wish for everyone to both give and receive some compassion and kindness this holiday season – including giving some of both to yourselves. Maybe for you, that means allowing that you don’t have to host a work party and a neighborhood party and a family party, and just do one, or hell, none. Give the money to charity, instead, and if anyone gives you any shit about not hosting, tell them you decided this year to give the money to aid organizations feeding starving children, and let them feel like an asshole (or know they will be judged as one if they open their mouths to bitch at that point).

Maybe it means allowing that it is okay to need help, and calling a friend, or calling a hotline.

Maybe it means choosing to ignore the holiday altogether and doing some spring-cleaning in December instead.

I also hope everyone will take some time to consider the idealized meanings of the holiday season, and try to put more effort into those things.

Could be you yourself are one of those estranged loved ones who could choose to make amends. You could Ebenezer Scrooge someone into a renewed faith in life and humanity by doing what is difficult, owning your fuck-ups, and behaving differently.

Maybe there is someone in your sphere of acquaintance who is not the easiest person to deal with, who likely could use a little compassion – even if it is just saying hello to a crabby neighbor, and ignoring their defensive reply (or non-reply).

Maybe there is a person who is elderly and living alone in your neighborhood you could choose to befriend – starting with an invite to the holiday party you are throwing. They will likely appreciate it a lot more than the people you look at with barely-suppressed resentment across the dining table.

Maybe you could just take the time to reevaluate how you view the people who suffer in the world, if you are one who tends to blame and shame, and ask what fears about the fragility and vulnerability of your own good luck probably fuel those beliefs.

Maybe instead of spending fifty dollars on a gift card for someone who doesn’t need or appreciate it, you can put that fifty dollars in the hands of someone who has nothing, the next time you see someone sleeping on a street. Fifty dollars is a fortune for someone with nothing – and if you want to go off on some compassionless rant about how they will just spend it on drugs or booze, well, be honest – you live inside, and you probably do the same with some of the money you have, and know you do so as a way to deal with pain of some kind. Do you really think the stress of your life can touch the stress of weathering the winter outdoors? Before you consider the statistics that a majority of people who are homeless are veterans, and a majority of people who are homeless suffer from mental illness (and the sad reality that means a large number must be both)?

Maybe all of this sounds like bullshit, but if you are so sure it is, you could try, and try to prove me wrong – in all likelihood, you will find out that some of it isn’t bullshit. There are so many things we can do, that require little of us, that can make a difference in someone else’s life – and doing that usually feels pretty good. One Christmas – the first I spent alone, actually – the friend I call my little brother, who was serving in Afghanistan at the time, who I hadn’t heard from in worryingly long, called me. That remains the single greatest Christmas gift I have ever gotten, and made a day that was overall pretty sad suddenly happier.

Helping others really does help ourselves, too. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be typing into the void, trying to encourage hypothetical readers through a season that is difficult for many, some by choice, some by circumstance, and feeling a little less unhappy about the holidays myself. Isolation makes most of what is bad, worse. Give yourself a chance to feel a little better. Your words, your time, your attention, your company – these are gifts most of us are able to give, and some of the most needed and appreciated. (That said, if you can give money, to people without it, money can be the difference between life and death, so by all means, if you can, give that, too.)

I wish you happy holidays, or join you in saying fuck the holidays, according to whichever actually makes your holidays a little better.

 

Dear Kath, (9)

Dear Kath,

Back again, with my stomach churned from anxiety, trying to pep talk myself and finding it not at all helpful. Considered the whole “think of all the things you have survived” strategy, but thinking of those things is pretty much just scary, not empowering. Which makes sense, as courage is not fearlessness, courage is acting in spite of feeling fear. And fear is what I feel right now. Whether or not I have survived equally bad or worse does not make this any easier. It makes it terrifying. I know how bad things can be. Have been. Are. I don’t want any more. I want to be through this already. I am choking, sister, and there is fuck all I can do in this moment, but I also don’t have the capacity to forget about it and relax. If you are watching out for me, please, send the dog with a backpack full of cash, or similar. I need a fucking break. I am past my capacity to function in dire circumstances. I need a fucking break. Please. I want to know what it is like to live a life that is tranquil. That is lucky. That is something that doesn’t give me nightmares and rob me of the escape of sleep. I want to know what it is like to have some peace. I want to know what it is like to live a life that doesn’t feel like an escalating series of punishments. I want to know what it is like to feel real relief, to know everything is okay, now, and will be okay. This is pretty much straight word-vomit, but I needed to blurt somewhere. I needed to get the panic out of my head and anywhere else. I need you. Where did you go? That is the question that haunts us after death, isn’t it? You were right here, you were here, and now you aren’t. Why aren’t you here? Where did you go? Dammit, I need you to be here. I need to pick up the phone and be able to hear your voice. I need to hear the voice that…gave me some solid ground. I feel like I have lost every single bit of stability, every inch of foundation, one piece after another. Relentlessly. For years. And years. And years. I can’t take any more, Kath. I lived past losing you, and it just keeps getting worse. Please, please, help me right now. Help me, please.

I love you. I miss you. I feel lost without you.

And I considered just leaving this in the drafts or deleting it, but ultimately, truthfully, it made me feel better. One of the worst habits born of fucked up experiences, I think, is learning to try to suppress what we feel, to deny it, to bury, not to express it. And sometimes what we really need to do is just let ourselves have a good, mindless, freaked-out blurt. Word-vomit, indeed. One of those instances of better out than in. Suppression is one of those things that I think is the root of, and amplifiers of, anxiety.

I have not solved my problems. I am still waiting for the backpack dog. But I feel at least like now I can put some shit aside for a while and let my mind be distracted and hope that allows me to sleep peacefully after. Not everything helpful is pretty. Not everything that is helpful is a cure-all. But it is still worth doing.

I put my very brief panicked word-barf out there for anyone who is keeping it all inside. Maybe try word-vomiting that shit out, onto a page, into a hotline staffers’ ear, to a trusted loved one who has the capacity in the moment to hold some space for your pain, whatever you have, wherever it feels safe, let it rip. You might not make a lot of sense, you might not say what you logically mean, you might say things that are exagerrated or nonsensical – and you might find that venting your feelings (in a non-abusive way, if you are venting to another person, I am not advocating for yelling or throwing shit or any of that biz) provides you with relief from the very feelings you want to be relieved of.

Letting your freak-out flag fly might help. It helped me. I am going to watch some Netflix and hopefully hit sleepytown.

Seriously, Kath, this whole exercise is turning into a weird fucking journey into basic emotional coping and self-care skills. Beats the hell out of sitting around feeling terrified without end. What the fuck would I have ever done without you? Thank you for being someone who loved me so truly that you left me with a little piece of the space you held for me. It is like I still have your permission to say how I am, and that is enough to allow me to do it. I don’t think you will ever stop saving my ass. Goddamn, I miss you, bitch.

I love you so much. You are still the heart of my heart. Always will be.

Lisa