Written in the Portland airport.
Who would I be if:
- I weren’t trying to be polite?
- I weren’t trying to please?
- I weren’t afraid?
Every time I peel away a layer, a reaction, an assumption, I find that there are still more stories to unpack. To quote the Indigo Girls, “there’s a thin line between pleasing yourself and pleasing someone else.”
I’ve been working from home because of the recent snowstorm, and this has brought my loneliness into relief. My emotions are all over the place. Facebook shows me albums of photos from parties I wasn’t invited to, hosted by former friends, reminding me that they’re all having fun while I sit at home. Granted, I now know that those relationships existed on a spectrum of toxicity, and if those people don’t care enough to keep in touch they were never truly my friends before. But I’ll admit, I have moments of wishing I could have the illusion of community back once more.
I try reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace At Every Step and wish that finding calm and peace were as easy as he makes it sound. The truth is, the book is showing me just how deeply entrenched my feelings of wrongness are – how fundamentally flawed I feel. And I look back at all those friendships that have crumbled, those social circles in which I’m no longer welcome, and they reinforce this certainty delusion. I know of no one else who has lost as many friends as I have. But I suppose that doesn’t mean those people don’t exist – I just haven’t encountered them.
Through a commenter at Fugitivus I discovered a post at The Hathor Legacy about “The myth of the woman who craves abuse.” I read it with some interest because I have often worried that I am one of those women you hear about, one who is doomed to unconsciously repeat the bad patterns in her life, the one who won’t date the good guy because she is pathologically attracted to men who will hurt her. One part it particular seemed particularly insightful:
People occasionally tell me about some female friend who is so smart and successful, yet keeps picking jerks when there are nicer men to be had. How, they wonder, can I argue that she doesn’t crave abuse? Simple. Often what she’s seeking is a fellow recovering victim, but she ends up with an abuser instead….This woman will seek men who can understand her, often via their own history of childhood abuse. Unfortunately, men are less likely than women to fully recover from childhood abuse, mostly because the cult of masculinity insists they can overcome anything simply by “being a man”, which aparently does not include the very emotional work required for full recovery. So they end up abusive, or – more often – somewhat abusive but not enough to stop you from thinking full recovery is right around the corner. (This last has not been my personal experience, but I’ve seen it happen to others and have experienced the flip side: I attract abuse victims who got stuck in victim mode rather than abuser mode, and leech onto my strength until I’m worn out supporting them in an effort that never reaches payoff.)
So many times, I’ve opened up to people in the hopes of finding someone who understands what it’s like to have your mind bent inside out from trying to please a narcissist. And many times I’ve felt as if I’d been punched in the gut when someone just doesn’t get it, or, even worse, doesn’t care to. Two of the friendships that have been dearest to me were with people who had themselves suffered from various kinds of abuse. About two years ago, I had to distance myself from M whose penchant for never-ending drama left me hurt and exhausted, exactly like the quote mentions above. And the other friendship, which ended about a year ago, crashed and burned when I stood up to B, who had become more and more of an abuser over the course of a year. Looking back, my friendship with B was predicated upon the fact that I was broken and that he could fix me if I did everything just as he said. The moment I pushed back, refused to be bullied into something, that friendship imploded. In one night it was done – he cut off all contact, and closed me out of that network of friends entirely. Meekly, I’ve tried to contact a couple of people since then, hoping that once the dust had settled, we might find a way to stay in touch. Well, I get to see photos of their parties on Facebook, so I guess we’re not completely out of touch.
But what strikes me as a truth is that each and every one of my relationships does seem to fall into victim/abuser categories. Twice I’ve let myself be talked into dating men who weren’t right for me – I felt it from the start. But they were so persistent, you see, who am I to turn away someone who likes me? And I held onto those relationships, even though they hurt me in different ways, because the worst thing I could think of doing was hurt someone. That wasn’t in my repertoire – *I* don’t hurt people, *they* hurt me. I set myself up to be a victim. Now, one of those guys was a slick and cruel emotional abuser, and I’m still dealing with the after-effects of being with him. The other guy, well, he just didn’t get it – he had no idea what it was like to fight the demons of self-loathing and abandonment anxiety. At the end of the day, I should have just trusted my instincts and refused to date him.
One could argue that I’m in a good place now – I’ve freed myself from the bad power dynamics inherent in those old relationships and I can now focus on finding people who are open and empathetic. And some days, I feel ready to do just that. I know that people like this exist out there somewhere, they run blogs like Fugitivus and Shapely Prose and Yes Means Yes and *they get it*. Now I’d just like to find them nearby so we can have pizza and hang out in person.
Everything is impermanent.
Last night I dreamed I was at Disney World or some other amusement park. Actually, I wasn’t in the park just yet, but standing in a long line outside it, waiting to buy my ticket to get in. Ahead of the winding stanchions was ticket booth shaped like a concrete bunker, and beyond that, hovering just above it, was the monorail, with the train waiting at the station for passengers.
I remember feeling indecisive: do I want to stand in this line? Do I want to get into the park after all? The skies darkened and I almost turned to leave, not really wanting to stand in the rain. I chided myself for being impatient, turned around once more to stay in line and then looked up to the sky to scan for clouds. But as I looked above the gleaming metal of the monorail, I saw the crest of a wave -a huge wave – about to break over the entrance of the park. As it crashed down I heard the sound of gasps and shouts as the crowd scattered, people dodging this way and that, trying to escape the gallons of salt walter falling down on their heads.
I’ve had a remarkable couple of days – I’ve been braver and warmer and more open to new people and new experiences than usual, and it makes me happy to feel like I’m making progress. And then this morning I woke up with the panicked and stifling thought: “Who do you think you are? Don’t you see how stupid and earnest and ridiculous you are? You do everything wrong! Did you really think you could escape from YOU?”
When that voice speaks, it’s devastating. It sounds so much like truth.
But then I closed my eyes, denied those thoughts and decided not to go down that path. There is nothing there but suffering. I may not be perfect, but I’d rather be happy with what I am than continually denouncing myself for what I’m not.
Sometimes my life is quiet, and sometimes I encounter half the people I know all in one day and I feel suddenly visible. I like that feeling of being seen, acknowledged, dare I say…liked? But there is another feeling hiding behind that satisfaction – the resignation that the quietness will return eventually. There will follow days, maybe even weeks, without one phone call or text message. I have to learn to enjoy these moments of connectedness without letting the absence of them get me down.
Today I ran into three different acquaintances on my way to work. Three people in about 30 minutes. One saw me from his car as I walked to the bus stop (and messaged me later to say hi), another coworker missed the bus he usually takes and ended up sitting next to me. And then yet another person tapped my shoulder in greeting as I bought my morning coffee.
In these moments when I am suddenly in the presence of others, my first impulse is to do everything in my power to put them at ease. My social anxiety clamps down for a moment, and I have to remind myself to relax – just chat to pass the time, silly, you’re not responsible for taking care of everyone! You can be grouchy and a little taciturn or surprised and inarticulate and the person isn’t going to hate you for the rest of life because of it. Right? At least I hope so.
So when my coworker sat down on the bus next to me, we talked about our Thanksgiving holiday and movies we’d seen recently. As the bus neared our destination, I got quiet as a heated discussion flared up within my own brain. You see, I had planned to get off the bus one stop earlier to go to a cafe to get my coffee this morning instead of making a pot at the office. A little treat for myself after the brisk walk to the bus stop. But I didn’t *need* to get off early, it was just a frivolous little plan I’d made. And here was my coworker in the aisle seat – if I got off the bus at the cafe then he’d have to stand up to let me out, and I’d have to cut short our small talk. It would be easier just to go with the flow, get off at my regular stop. No one would be the wiser (well, save for me) and he wouldn’t be inconvenienced. But no, I’d planned to get my coffee – why shouldn’t I go through with it? Would it really be so awful to have a slightly different plan?
It must seem like such a small thing to worry about. And don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t some existential crisis – I’m fairly certain my friendly coworker had no inkling of this little debate I was having with myself. But it’s an old old pattern of mine, to do what’s easiest, imposing on no one, always silently re-arranging my life to accommodate others (often completely unbeknownst to them). At least I am mindful enough to catch myself now, before I do it.
I’m happy to say I got off the bus and got a superior cup of coffee. A year ago, I don’t think I would have done the same.