Before You Bemoan Trigger Warnings and Coddled Youth…

Today, I got triggered because my jeans were too tight.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” you may be thinking. “That’s ridiculous. Aren’t you taking this whole concept a bit too far?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s ridiculous. Even I think it’s ridiculous. And no, I’m not taking it too far.

See, I have profound issues with my body (if you’ve read any of my blog posts, you already know this, or at least suspect it). When I was 17, I almost died of anorexia nervosa. I struggled with a severe eating disorder for years after, and have never felt entirely comfortable in my body. I’ve put on a large amount of weight in the past five years or so, and everything that makes me notice it brings all those issues to the surface. Clothes that no longer fit right. The sense of being compressed into too small a space, a space I once inhabited with (relative) ease.

This is what it feels like: I can’t breathe, and I don’t know whether it’s from the tightness of my clothes or something in my head, a stress response. My heart races. My body starts to shake. All the horrible things I’ve ever thought about my body, all the horrible things anyone has ever said about my body, fill my mind, pushing out everything else. I’m terrified to move. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that something is happening over which I have no control. The idea of control in itself is vague and illusory. I feel helpless. I want to run and hide, or fight, but I’m incapable of neither. There’s no safety wherever I turn.

All from squeezing myself into a pair of too-small jeans.

Breathe.

I have a lot of triggers like that: triggers other people might consider “stupid” or trivial. I haven’t actually been through a lot of things that were life-threatening in the moment, and the ones I have experienced pale beside earlier sustained trauma. Yes, it was terrifying in the moment being raped. But in all honestly, it didn’t mark me the way it marks other people. I got over it fairly quickly. I can read graphic descriptions of rape and other physical violence. I can even see them on TV or in movies, though I don’t like them. It’s the little stuff that gets to me, because my trauma was day-to-day over a long period of time. Everyday things other people don’t notice are loaded in ways that are hard to explain. Tight clothes. The idea of exercise. I have a hard time with the mere word, “exercise.” Playing music. Trying to make conversation. Leaving my house, which is mostly safe. People not being honest about what they’re feeling–I guess that may be more common than I suppose. Hunger, which I experience several times a day. Imagine having a fight or flight response every time you get hungry. 

My point is, no one can know what’s going to trigger another person. You can’t say, “Oh, that. I don’t have any trouble with that, so you shouldn’t either.” You can’t say, “Your desire to be safe and informed in this area is a symptom you need to pull up your panties and grow up. The world has bad stuff in it; get over it.” Triggers don’t work that way. Instead of judging by your own experience, maybe try showing some compassion and trying to understand.

I think most people want things to be easy and to fall into neat categories: THIS is something that could be triggering and THIS isn’t. THIS is normal human experience; THIS is beyond the pale. But mental health issues don’t work that way at all. Definitions change all the time as understanding changes. In my lifetime alone, homosexuality was removed from the DSM; I was hospitalized with men whose only “illness” was “being gay,” and mental health professionals didn’t begin to address the results of the ways they were treated because of it. In my lifetime, Manic Depressive Psychosis has become Bipolar Disorder, has become Bipolar Spectrum Disorder. Most people still view PTSD through a single lens. The idea of CPTSD is catching on, but it’s still not an “official” diagnosis.

So, you know, shut up about other people’s triggers. I know it’s difficult to build a standard policy on shifting sand, but that’s not our problem.

That’s all.

Body Positivity Has an Outreach Problem

Yesterday morning I was hanging around Twitter, as one does, and I ran into a conversation among some friends about how hard it is to be a woman: How much extra work you have to do, how many expectations you have to live up to, and like that. Most of the participants were women. The few men involved offered rote reassurance: “You’re beautiful as you are.” Often the women replied with denial: “Oh, it’s the filter on my avatar.” The women talked about the need to have flawless skin and makeup and hair, to be a size two in order to have any value. Some mentioned feeling like shit when they admired attractive men, because they knew they “weren’t worthy.”

It broke my heart.

I should have kept my mouth shut, but of course, being me, I didn’t. I acknowledged that the world is rough on women. I said there’s some things that aren’t in our control, but other things that are. Some of the things society says you “have to” do aren’t necessary at all. I said worth isn’t in size or shape or the color of your hair. I said you have the ability to choose not to buy into those messages. To me, all these things are basic, Body Positivity 101. I honestly didn’t expect them to be triggering and hurtful to the women involved. I didn’t expect to get pushback. But I did. I heard that telling women to “just get over it” is like telling a disabled person to get up and walk. I heard that maybe all that is true in theory, but in practice the media portrayal of beauty wins every time. I heard that hearing it’s hard for everyone isn’t helpful.

I heard a lot of stuff that made me think. My contributions, though well intended, were as wrongheaded and ineffectual as the men’s rote reassurances, for much the same reasons. They didn’t validate the pain, and they didn’t address the issue.

In hindsight, as I said, I should have kept out of it. Twitter isn’t the best place, or even a very good place, for deep conversations. What one says can too easily be misconstrued. It’s hard to recognize when someone is venting and when someone is seeking solutions; harder still to offer solutions when they’re sought. The truth is, this is a hard world for women. We are expected to maintain a particular appearance. Photo-heavy social media like Instagram make it all the more difficult to ignore. All social media drives the message home, when non-conforming and non-compliant women are subject to the vilest forms of harassment and physical beauty translates to literal currency. It’s dangerous out there. It’s dangerous for women who do conform; why take the added risk of choosing not to?

And yet. It hurts my heart that for so many of these women the very notion of conformity being a choice is so difficult and painful to grasp, as alien an idea as if it arrived on a space ship from a planet light years away. That they’ve internalized damaging ideas of beauty and worth, and the connection between the two, to the point where challenging them doesn’t enter their reality. It’s just life.

I thought we’d come farther than this. Isn’t that what body positivity is supposed to be about?

I write this from a position of privilege as a married, white women, fat but not “too” fat, and curved in the “right” places, of reasonable attractiveness, who lives in a small town and isn’t subject to the stuff women are subject to in larger cities, especially when they’re single. I don’t worry about attracting or keeping love. I don’t worry about being harassed as I walk down to the post office (actually, I do, but that’s more from my anxiety issues than any sense it will really happen). I’ve never cared about conforming and my personal style can best be described as casual and eccentric. I also have the privilege of not being required to interact with the parts of the world I don’t want to interact with. I don’t watch regular TV. I don’t work in an office. So I can talk a good line about choosing or not choosing what matters. The truth is, I don’t often have to face the consequences of my choices in the matter, and, though when we visit larger places I do worry about it, I’m largely secure and clueless. A lot of my security comes from being the obvious “possession” of a large, intimidating man. I recognize this, and I take every advantage of it. My cluelessness I can’t excuse.

I remember when I was younger and less clueless, though. I didn’t conform then, either, but I heard about it more. I remember being told at one job how much more feminine I’d look if I wore makeup. I remember struggling to fit into even alternative models of beauty, where being a cis het woman definitely put me at a disadvantage as far as finding partnerships was involved. There was always someone thinner, cooler, more punk, more earthy, more whatever was the standard. I remember being afraid of never finding love because I didn’t fit the mold, and, when I did find myself in a relationship, being afraid of being cast aside for someone “better.” I remember being turned down for job after job in California, where it seemed the only qualification I lacked was the right “look.” I remember the hurt of being turned down for roles in plays and dance pieces for not being the right “type.” I should have shown more sympathy and preached less.

Body Positivity has gone mainstream in the last few years, especially through the work of activists like Jes Baker, Virgie Tovar, and others you can read about here (the list skews heavily towards white women, unfortunately). It’s always been a huge part of my personal work and my feminism, mainly because of my history with eating disorders. Mid-treatment or so, my psychiatrist gave me a copy of Fat is a Feminist Issue. I don’t remember much about it except I connected with some of it and not with most, and didn’t find it very useful. Later, as a college student in my 20s just beginning to explore the Women’s Movement, I attended the Sex, Power, and the Media lecture and presentation by former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, Ann Simonton. The experience blew my mind open by pointing a finger at how media objectification of women not only ropes us into a cycle of buying clothes, beauty products, and diet schemes but also does us direct damage by propelling us into a mindset where hatred for our own bodies is seen as normal. It made me think things I’d never thought and ask questions I’d never voiced. And I swore then not to buy it any longer.

That was over thirty years ago. For me, as far as body image and self love go, they’ve been years of struggle. As much as I’d like to be able to say I rejected the media message once I saw the truth behind it, I haven’t. I have good days and bad days. And the good body days don’t look like thinking I’m cute. They look more like being able not to pay attention to my body every second. Being able not to notice that I’ve put on 70 lbs in the last few years. Being able to accept the way my belly gets compressed when I get up from the sofa, rather than despise myself for it. The bad days, well. The bad days, I sweat, I smell bad, I’m ugly, and I don’t fit in any reasonably attractive clothes. I’m lazy and gluttonous and every single stereotype of the bad fatty you can think of.  And I deserve every sorrow ever visited on me, because I choose not to conform.

So, no. When I say you can choose, I’m not saying “just get over it” and I’m not claiming it’s easy. In some ways, it’s harder. From my standpoint, though, I would rather be able to look those feelings of worthlessness in the eye and tell them “You’re a lie.” I may still feel like crap, but it’s no longer about me. It’s something that was done to me, and still is done to me every time I watch a movie or pick up a magazine.

Trying to bring this post around to some kind of point, the interactions of yesterday made me think that a certain set of people, women in particular, are falling through the cracks when it comes to body positive activism. I came to it through necessity, and it seems to me quite a few of the prominent voices did so as well (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong; I’m no authority). Spaces didn’t exist, so they created them. Clothing didn’t exist, so they invented them. Dance companies didn’t exist, so they founded them. My friend, the late Heather MacAllister, combined her love of dance with queer politics and created Big Burlesque, which led to her becoming a speaker for size activism before her death. The people in the movement I’ve known personally have been, like Heather, already of an activist mindset, and the people they reach are already receptive to the message. On some level, they’ve come to the place of “We’re fat and society’s fucked. Now what?”

This leaves behind a lot of people who haven’t quite accepted either of those premises. Women who feel bad about being fat (whether or not they objectively are), and maybe know on a cognitive level it’s programming, but don’t have the internal or external resources to combat it. Women so beaten down by media representation that they truly believe no conventionally attractive man can ever find them sexy. People, I guess I mean, of all genders who aren’t going to search the Internet for fat positivity because looking at their own bodies is too painful and hard, and standing up to the system of oppression is plain impossible.

How can the body positivity movement reach these people? I don’t think it’s good enough for any movement to wait for those of like minds to find it. It needs to actively make itself available to those in need, and this is where I see body positivity falling down.

I don’t have any good answers, or any answers at all. But maybe if enough of us start asking the question, we’ll discover one.

 

Emotional Labor and Mental Illness

I think it was about a year ago when I first ran across the term “Emotional Labor.” I’m not alone; although the concept has been a staple of sociology for thirty years, it’s only recently I’ve seen it discussed on a wider scale. If you want to read more about it, this is a pretty good article, but in brief, emotional labor is the effort we take to regulate emotions and the expression thereof. It extends to modifying environments to make them more welcoming and comfortable, keeping track of details, and various types of nurturing. In other words, what used to be termed “Women’s Work.” Sociologists often make a distinction between “emotional labor” and “emotional work,” where the former takes place in a job setting while the latter is geared toward home and relationships. I personally find this distinction unnecessary and even a little offensive, so for the purposes of this post I’m using the terms interchangeably.

When I first saw the term (I think it was here), it was like a lightbulb flashed in my brain. “Oh!” I thought. “This is the piece I’m missing!” Here’s some context: I’m married, and have been for twenty years, to a wonderful, feminist man I love dearly, who is my best friend. If any of those pieces had been missing, I wouldn’t have married him. And for the most part, we have a great marriage. However, like any couple, we have our disagreements and rough spots. There’ve been numerous times in our relationship I’ve tried to communicate things to him and felt like I just wasn’t getting through on some level. The idea of emotional labor, the fact that my work to keep our household running smoothly is often taken for granted and sometimes plain invisible, gave me a way to explain in words he understood better.

I don’t know how much the division of labor in our household is due to the way gender socialization works, and how much is our particular characters and aptitudes. While I like to think of myself as a dreamer, the fact is I’m quite a practical person, with an organized mind and an ability to keep track of what goes where and when which thing needs to happen. My husband is the dreamer, and his great memory for detail sometimes leads him to get bogged down in minutiae, while his perfectionism causes him to develop intricate processes to accomplish relatively simple tasks. He’s capable of huge compassion for others, but not so much for himself, a tendency he attributes to the religion he was raised in. I’m very open and outspoken about my emotions and my process; him, not so much. While you could find reasons for all this in the different ways men and women are taught to behave, you might, if you knew us well, see these qualities as part of our individual identities.

But there’s one place where my husband and I definitely differ: I have a mental illness, and have spent more than half my life learning how to manage it. While he experiences intermittent episodes of depression, they’re not the life-threatening kind that leads one to intensive treatment. Consequently, he hasn’t had to do the emotional work I have, and gets along all right without it. He’s a great conversationalist, facilitator, and mediator. People feel safe with him. But he doesn’t have the skill I have at delving into deep matters or my comfort level with addressing extremely uncomfortable personal topics. When your emotions can kill you, when you’ve been held on a locked hallway until you learn (or make a viable pretense of having learned) to deal with them, you become adept at self questioning and self regulation.

Of course, not everyone does. Some people with mental illnesses are ultra resistant, some don’t have the insight and aptitude, some fall back into old patterns when they get into triggering situations, and some are simply too ill. I’m talking about those of us considered “high functioning” in one area or another: by reason of intellect, or ability to appear “normal,” or ability to hold a job. The people you wouldn’t immediately peg as having mental health issues. And some high functioning people don’t learn either, because they can manipulate or coerce others into doing their emotional labor for them. Some use their illness as an excuse not to do their own emotional labor. Our former housemate was one of these. From the outside, she was interesting, intelligent, and capable, a fun person to be around. It was only once you got close that the demands started, and these could take the form of anything from long conversations over coffee trying to “process” some real or imagined slight to waking people up in tears at three in the morning to spend three hours talking her through an event from days earlier. Any attempt to make her do her own work was framed as retraumatizing. Because, face it, emotional labor isn’t usually fun. It’s hard, and it’s often painful, and it feels much better to have someone else do it for you. It feels like being taken care of, and it is. She refused outright to go to therapy because therapists “wouldn’t understand” her, and this necessitated interventions a couple times a week to keep her from blowing like a steamkettle. Living with her was draining and frustrating on a level I’d never experienced before, and haven’t since, although one instance came close.

The psycho ex-housemate stuff will become relevant later, trust me.

Anyway, I’ve spent a good portion of my life doing the emotional labor of others. Trying not to trigger my repressed parents. Talking friends through fights and breakups. Reassuring people of their worth and attempting to shine a different light on their problems. As I said, it’s something I’m skilled at, trained in, even, since my degree is in Dance Therapy. It’s not to the advantage of my personal boundaries that I’m highly empathetic, because when I feel something “off,” I’m not content to let it lie. Doing so makes me uncomfortable; I have to get it out in the open. Also, I find trivial conversation tiresome. I’m always looking for a deeper level of interaction.

The problem is, when I exert my energy on the emotional labor of other people, I often drain myself to the point of not being able to practice self care. Before I know it, I’m empty and spiraling down into a depressive cycle. This is why, when this meme popped up on Twitter the other day, it really resonated with me:14040135_10157345413950254_692207246828710712_n

Now, the above doesn’t exactly articulate my experience. It doesn’t take me a huge amount of energy to maintain my high functioning persona, mostly because I don’t bother with doing so; if I have it, I have it, and if I don’t, I don’t. I have an extreme distaste for masks and personas of any kind, and I never had much use for societal expectations (which is no doubt one reason I’ve always had a hard time working a “job” in the commonly understood sense). And when people rely on me for emotional labor, I generally come through. However, as I already said, I often do so at the price of my own mental health. And that’s bad.

Using my marriage as an example, and getting back to the psycho ex-housemate: I was involved with her for one year. My husband was for five, and during that time he did the bulk, if not all, of her emotional labor. He was the one she woke up in the middle of the night when she was upset and needed talking down. He was the one who never had time or space for his own activities, because he always had to be available to her. He was the one who faced The Wrath if he went down to the corner store for a beer to drink during their scheduled TV date and she flipped because she decided his absence meant he was going to blow her off. And, by the way, if you think this sounds abusive, IT ABSOLUTELY WAS. Bear it in mind: Refusing to do your own emotional work inevitably makes you toxic.

The year I spent in the same house with the pair of them, most of my energy was spent trying to get him out. When I succeeded and we moved far, far away, there was a consequence to both of us I hadn’t foreseen. He’d had to do so much emotional labor for psycho ex-housemate that he wanted no part in doing any more for anyone, himself included. I was so afraid of being like, or even appearing to be like, psycho ex-housemate, that I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to. I expected that once we got out of the toxic situation, things would naturally assume a more normal condition. We’d be able to devote more time to each other and our mutual needs, like looking after our home and sharing chores and responsibilities, without the looming threat of psycho ex-housemate coloring every interaction. I hadn’t counted on him being so damaged, and simply worn out, that what I considered “normal” was beyond his ability even to consider. And because I hadn’t yet run across the concept of emotional labor, I had no way of addressing the situation.

On top of that, we got involved with another set of people who didn’t do their own emotional work. Because of my nature, and because I tend to believe doing the emotional work of others is my only value and setting boundaries will cost me friends, I took the bulk of it on. My husband was perfectly willing to listen to me vent about it, and even join in, but didn’t, or wasn’t able to, support me the way I wanted in the moment. I developed some physical health problems, including suffering the two miscarriages I’ve mentioned in other posts. There, too, I didn’t get the support I needed. Neither did my husband. I honestly don’t think we’ve done the emotional work around those losses that we should as of this day. There are a lot of reasons for that, not least that miscarriage carries a certain stigma and isn’t talked about much, but also my deep feeling that children are something more worthy and desirable women get, and I was asking too much by wanting them. Anyway, in the end, I broke.

There’ve been times along the way when I’ve been more functional than not, but I’ve spent basically the last twelve to fourteen years broken from doing too much emotional labor for others and not getting the help I needed doing mine. That’s the better part of my marriage. I have regrets about it I can’t even articulate. I’ve blamed myself for not being strong enough and for not being more demanding, and for not standing up for myself. And I’ve blamed my husband for everything you can imagine and probably more you can’t. But in the end, blame doesn’t do either of us any good and doesn’t matter. It’s how to go on that matters.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: As much as possible, do your own emotional labor. Whatever it looks like: caring for your space, finding a place and support to talk through your feelings, taking a long bath, learning how to paint or dance. If there’s scary stuff you need to work through, find a therapist. If you have health issues, get them looked at. Don’t rely on others to do the work, or invite you to discuss things, or prod you into it. Especially don’t do this if you know they have a mental illness, even if they’re really good at it. Being really good at it means they probably have to do more emotional labor in a week than you face in a lifetime. Okay, that’s hyperbole. But seriously, do your own work. Otherwise you risk damaging the people least able to bear it. People you love.

And I guess that’s all I have to say.

 

 

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Ode to my Therapist

After almost forty years of mental health treatment, I’ve finally found a therapist who “gets” me.

You’d think it wouldn’t have taken so long, or been so hard. It shouldn’t take so long or be so hard. The fact that it is, is, in my opinion, criminal. I’ve touched on this in previous blogs. The last thing a suffering person needs is to have to ascertain whether or not their care provider knows what they’re talking about, or whether they’ll be treated as a human being with an individual identity. This is especially important for people with mental illness, who often aren’t in any position to challenge providers or stand up for themselves.

To be fair, my last therapist wasn’t bad, and I stayed with her a long time. She did a lot for me, including actively involving herself in my disability case and taking me as a pro bono client when I didn’t have the means to pay her. Several of my therapists haven’t been bad, precisely. But they’ve been limited in their ability to understand me, because of the nature of their training, because of misapprehensions about mental illness that some theories of mental health actively encourage, because psychology and psychiatry are, in fact, fairly new disciplines and deal with matters that are hard to pin down. All the definitions change as knowledge increases. So, for about forty years, I’ve been in and out, grasping the rope when I needed it most and swimming on my own when the rope couldn’t help anymore.

The thing is, psychologists and psychiatrists tend to cling to whatever was the current model when they were in school. They were given a hammer, so everything looks like a nail. And a lot of them seem both incapable of recognizing evidence showing that some things are not nails, and reluctant to put down the hammer in favor of an impact driver or framing saw when necessary.

Aside: Some years ago, I considered going into Clinical Psychology. The program I was considering required GRE scores, so I registered for the test and picked up a GRE example test book in Psychology. Literally 75% of the questions were Psych 101 stuff–like, “Who is considered the founder of child behavioral psychology?”–and statistics. And I thought, “There is nothing here about helping people. It’s all about fitting people into boxes.” So I didn’t take the GRE, even though I’d already paid for it, and I never got an MA in Clinical Psych.

What makes my therapist so unusual? She listens, and she believes me. You might think that’s only to be expected from someone you hire to do those very things. I certainly did, forty years ago. I learned pretty quick it’s not at all the case. A lot of therapists don’t listen well. They’re too busy trying to remember how to show they’re listening–“It sounds like you’re saying you’re angry. Is that right?”–to actually do it. And even the ones who listen pretty well are not very good at believing what they hear unless it fits into their preconceived notions about you. If and when the two contradict each other, they decide you must be wrong about your experience and try to convince you they know better. They are so afraid of believing a lie or confabulation–things which happen seldom–that they’re prone to cast shade on the truth. If you come in with a diagnosis, anorexia nervosa, for example, they check what you say against the current theory about the diagnosis and disregard what doesn’t fit. People with anorexia are obsessed with control, they don’t want to mature, they’re afraid of female bodies, they lie and manipulate. Check. Don’t try to tell them otherwise. They know.

Sometimes, too, therapists are so uncomfortable with what you’re saying, or so unable to relate, that instead of focusing on your needs as a client they try to steer the conversation to a place where they feel more secure. This is why I stopped seeing my last therapist. In one of my last sessions with her, I said I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I’d probably never have children of my own. She asked me why I thought that was true. I said I was forty-six and not getting any younger, my menstrual cycle had simply stopped and no one would look into it despite my strong feelings that it wasn’t normal, that I was depressed and poor and my sex life was practically nonexistent. She said, “Well, those are all valid reasons. So, how are you doing on the financial front?” It felt like a slap in the face. And I knew without a doubt that she, a super fertile mother of four kids, had no idea what I was going through and could no more relate than walk on the moon. I’d been dissatisfied with our meetings for a while. That was the last straw.

I’ve been seeing my current therapist for almost a year, and she’s been there all the way. In setting up my treatment plan (which, by the way, is something I never had before, or at least something no practitioner ever shared with me), I mentioned my trouble with childlessness. She said, “Sounds like you have grief over that.” Nailed it in one go. One of our first sessions, I was trying to describe my eating disorder being about a need for something I had a hard time articulating. She suggested, “Control?” I said, “No, not that,” and she said okay, and that was the end of it. She waited for me to find it instead of putting words into my mouth or slapping on a convenient label. She lets me lead, and lends a shoulder when I need one. She believes I’m intelligent and articulate. She doesn’t talk down to me, or tell me my experience is impossible. When she suggests something I know doesn’t work and I tell her so, she doesn’t say I haven’t done it right or need to do it more. She respects my right to say, “Not now,” or flat out “No.” She’s been there all the way, and I feel safer with her than I’ve ever felt with a mental health practitioner. I can be real. I don’t have to evaluate every topic to determine whether that’s somewhere she can go. I can do my own work, because I’m not additionally saddled with doing hers.

Some of this may be possible because of my own personal growth. Last year, in this post, I said,

In over thirty years of trying to get support and help for my condition, I have been smarter and more knowledgeable about my experience than 100% of the mental health professionals to whom I’ve turned.

Once I owned that as fact, I vowed I would be up front about it if I ever went back into treatment, and when I did my intake at Mental Health this time around, I looked the social worker straight and the eye and said, “I am smarter than you. It’s likely I’m smarter than everyone in this building.” This is not something I would have been able to do before a few years ago.

That social worker said, “Okay. I believe you.” And now she’s my therapist.

When I went back to Mental Health, I didn’t intend to do therapy at all. I just wanted my medication managed. I’m glad, that one time, she talked me into changing my mind.

What Has Happened, What I Knew, What I Learned

When I was a preschooler, because my mom worked, she arranged for another woman to look after me in the afternoons, until my mom could pick me up. This woman, Mrs. O, had a little boy about my age. We played together and mostly had a good time.

Sometimes, another little girl who lived in the neighborhood joined us. Those times were not so good for me. The little boy liked her better than he liked me. They were preschool “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” The little girl teased me, because she wanted to make her primacy clear. The little boy joined in, because he wanted to impress her. It hurt.

I knew hurting me meant nothing to them.

I learned people who claim to be your friends can be cruel.

Later, when I was in third grade, my school merged with another school and I met a whole new group of children. They were also cruel. They teased me about my weight, about my haircut, about my nonconformity. It hurt even more than the old teasing, because it was relentless, every day. I wanted to stop hurting, so I tried to get help from adults. Remember, I was eight years old. The adults said, “What did you do to bring it on?” and “Suffer in silence,” and “Just don’t let it get to you.” They said, “If I try to stop it, it’ll only get worse.”

I knew these were all bullshit excuses. I knew the adults didn’t care and couldn’t be bothered.

I learned to endure. I learned my pain didn’t matter.

At about twelve, I started experiencing periods of depression and suicidal thoughts. When I was fourteen, I started to self-harm. I was afraid and wanted help.

My mom said, “It’s just a phase.” She said, “I’m not taking you to a psychiatrist because they’ll just say I’m a bad mother, and I’m not.” She said, “You’re just trying to get attention.” She said, “How can you do this to ME?” She said, “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

My dad said, “Why do you treat your mother like dirt?”

When, after over a year, I did see a psychologist, she said, “You’re a normal teenager with normal teenage problems.” She said, “You just need a boyfriend.”

I knew self-harming was not normal. I knew a boyfriend wouldn’t help. I knew I wasn’t having depression and self-harming to get attention, or to punish anyone but myself. I knew it was NOT “just a phase.” I knew it was real. I have always known it is real.

I learned people are uncomfortable with and afraid of mental illness. I learned people are ignorant and don’t listen, because they’re too uncomfortable to hear it. I learned these things apply even to those who are supposed to be treating mental illness. I learned no one knows more about my feelings and my experience than I do.

I learned to keep quiet and become small, because when people are uncomfortable, they take it out on the thing causing their discomfort. And the cause of the discomfort was me.

I was the grain of sand in the oyster. The grain of sand causes the oyster to secrete a substance to protect itself from discomfort. This is how pearls are formed. A grain of sand, quiet and small, acquires a nacreous coating, which, ironically, makes it much bigger, more valuable, and harder to ignore.

Later, I got fed up with being quiet and small. I got fed up with people abusing me instead of facing their discomfort. I vowed I would speak my truth and take no shit, and anyone who didn’t like it could go straight to hell. I refused responsibility for other people’s dysfunction. I’ve strayed from keeping this vow many times, but on the whole, I’ve lived by it. It’s been freeing to say, “This is who I am.” To say, “I have no responsibility to read your mind when you won’t tell me the truth.” To say, “Help me or don’t; I don’t care. But don’t blame me for the choice you make.” To say, “What I do is what I do. I won’t let you take what small power I have by making it about you.”

It took me twenty-five years, a lot of therapy, and a huge amount of introspection to be able to say these things.

Yesterday, a British news site posted an article about how the mentally ill are not considered a “vulnerable population” unless they have an accompanying physical illness. A friend of mine responded with the #InShadowSelfie campaign for mental health awareness. I am rather in awe of the power of this idea and the huge, positive response. At the same time, I am absolutely aghast that it’s necessary in this 21st century. I’m horrified at how being small and quiet about mental illness is habitual, even compulsory, for so many people, STILL.

Yesterday, my Twitter feed was full of my friends talking about how unsafe it is for them to speak about their depression, or anxiety, or mania, or other mental health problems in certain corners of social media. How friends and family members respond with all the same, old bullshit I heard forty years ago and more. “You’re being too dramatic.” “You just want attention.” “Don’t be so personal!” “Suck it up and deal with it.” All that shit. How they have to keep small and silent because for some reason they can’t get away from these people. Can’t get away from the negative messages, that they then internalize. Now sometimes, they even try to change to be more what other people want. To make other people more comfortable.

I wrote this post for those friends of mine to tell them the people who tell them all that bullshit are oysters. They tell you to shut up because they’re uncomfortable. You have every right to be loud and to take up space. To express your feelings wherever you like. To say what you need to say. You have every right to block harmful words that diminish you and encourage you to stay quiet and small. To divorce yourself from all that crap. Yes, even if it comes from family members and people you love. You have every right to tell them to take their discomfort elsewhere, keep it out of your space. You have every right NOT TO BE HURT FURTHER by people who don’t understand you and have no desire to do so.

You don’t have to do any of these things because I say so. But you do have the right.

And remember, you are more than a grain of sand, causing irritation. You are a pearl in the making. And one day, you will leave the darkness where you grew. And you will shine.

 

“It’s Just Who I Am”

“It’s Just Who I Am.”  I don’t think any of us reaches adulthood without hearing these words from someone in our circle. Someone close, someone not so close. Sometimes the form is different: “It’s just the way I am,” or “I can’t help it,” or “That’s the way I roll,” or any number of permutations of the same concept. And if you’re like most people, you shrug, and accept it, and move on.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is bullshit.

Please don’t get me wrong. I work hard at being non-judgmental and accepting of people’s little idiosyncrasies. This one flips my switch, however. It flips my switch because people usually trot it out when you confront them on a behaviour that they could change without a whole lot of trouble. They just don’t want to. So they tell you “It’s just who I am” to deflect criticism and give themselves an excuse not to take responsibility. And because we have an ingrained unwillingness in our modern culture to confront and challenge, particularly when it’s a matter of internal reality and identity, we let them get away with it. Generally to our own detriment.

This pisses me off.

I had this friend. Not a super close friend, but someone I interacted with on a regular basis. Someone I’ve tried my best to support through various family difficulties. Someone with whom I’ve shared jokes and commiserated over the suckier aspects of life. She’s a person with a personality quite different from mine. I wouldn’t say “diametrically opposed,” but close. This person likes to tease and poke fun. Most often it’s a harmless quirk. Friends share inside jokes and stupid gags and mock each other, and it’s all good as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. But this friend sometimes loses track of what’s out of hand and what isn’t. She pushes things and takes them too far. There’s been more than one occasion when I’ve had to take her aside and say, “Okay, that’s enough.” And she’s responded pretty well, with a “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll give it a rest.”

So I didn’t expect it to be any different the last time I asked her to back off. But it was.

It was a couple weeks ago. I’d been having a string of bad days. By bad days I don’t just mean those days when you’re kind of blue; I mean the days when getting out of bed is a struggle because you can’t see any reason to even try interacting with the world, because it seems like no matter how hard you work, you can’t change a damn thing. The days when everything you’ve ever done and ever will do seems doomed to failure. When you feel ugly and irredeemable in your very soul.

I’m going to pause for a minute here and emphasize the importance of “ugly.” There’s a lot of talk in  feminist communities these days–well, there always has been, but like any fashion it’s come around again–about the pressure women feel to be beautiful, and how we need to reclaim ugliness and have it be okay not to be pretty and what-not. I’m down with that, except when it extends to people complaining about campaigns that put forth the notion that “everyone is beautiful,” because “WHY DO WE HAVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL? YOUR TELLING ME I’M BEAUTIFUL IS OPPRESSING ME!” (Please hold comments on this particular tangent; it’s another blog post.) But my truth is that beauty is important to me. I grew up from about the age of five hearing on a daily basis how ugly I was. I got called “dog,” hag,” “fat cow,” and pretty much every appearance slur imaginable every day. People made barfing noises behind me when I walked down the hall at school; they barked; they mooed. They said, “TASTY!” with that particular Grosse Pointe inflection of sarcasm that told you they meant anything but. And whether it’s social or whether it’s personal, I understood I had no value because I was ugly. I didn’t qualify as a human being. I would never be worth of love. I might be abandoned and left to die alone somewhere, because people couldn’t stand to look at me. And this is a belief system I struggle with to this day, every day.

So this day a couple weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch, intermittently checking in on Twitter looking for something to distract me from feeling like utter shit. And I saw this friend had tweeted about buying chunky peanut butter instead of creamy, and how it was so awful because chunky peanut butter is gross. And I, having a preference for chunky peanut butter myself, responded to this lament with “Creamy peanut butter is the Devil.” Meaning it as a joke, as you do.

A few seconds later, my phone beeped; my friend had responded. This is what she said:

“Your FACE is the Devil!”

Since I am familiar with this friend’s habit of teasing, it didn’t really surprise me, although it seemed an extreme reaction. But it wasn’t something I could really cope with on a day when I was struggling, and it–of course–triggered all my stuff about appearance. So I told my friend,

“I’m having a bad time and I didn’t really need to hear that today.”

In a minute, she came back with, “Oh, hun, you know I think you’re beautiful and I don’t mean anything by it.”

And you know, that ticked me off. Because I would have liked to hear something more like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t know you were having a rough time.” Instead of being told, in essence, “I don’t care about your rough time and you just have to cope.” So I tweeted her and said,

“For future reference, please, I really don’t like being teased about my appearance. It hurts.”

She responded one more time: “Understood.”

And I never heard from her again. I thought at the time that her final tweet had been somewhat brusque. But I wasn’t on-line much the rest of the day, and I don’t always interact with the same people even when I am. So I didn’t think anything about her distance until the next morning. I noticed it because it was a Friday, and this friend was pretty awesome about promoting writers in our circle. I saw that she had tweeted about a couple others of our friends, recommending their books and blogs and whatnot. But she hadn’t mentioned me. And it hurt; I felt neglected and envious. I didn’t like to think that she was trying to punish me for calling her out, but that’s what it felt like. I told myself not to be so sensitive and tried interacting with her, replying to a couple of questions she posted and all.

She ignored me. She ignored me all day, and that evening, thinking, “Oh, no, you didn’t,” I checked her profile to see that she had unfollowed me.

That made me really, really angry. I thought, “Fine, if you’re going to be like that,” and unfollowed her in return. I asked a couple people if they had any idea what was going on, and no one did. I thought I might try to address it later, when I calmed down. But every time I remembered it, I got angry again. Finally, about a week later, I messaged one of my other friends and asked her if she would be willing to see what was up? Because I really wanted to know if it was what I thought or if there was something else going on. My friend was willing. And this is the answer she got:

“I’m not someone who can hurt others in good conscience. It hurts ME incredibly. My only option then was to avoid hurting her further. And I can’t change who I am. This is me. I can’t act differently. So if by being me I hurt her and I can’t change who I am…the decision was one of avoiding causing another person pain.”

Wow. There are so many problems with this, I almost can’t even. In the first place, so your problem was being told you had done something hurtful in words. Did you not know? You’re not stupid, so I have to assume that you DO know, but as long as no one said, “This hurts,” you could ignore it. In the second place, how in the world do you imagine that disappearing without any explanation and refusing to discuss it WASN’T hurtful? You left me wondering what the fuck had happened, wondering if I had done something horrible I had no clue about. Yeah, I felt really good about that. Oh, right–you can’t address the issue because it might be hurtful. Fuck that. Getting stitches hurts, but sometimes it’s necessary.

And then there’s the last thing: “I can’t change who I am.” You know, I can almost accept that having a teasing mode of interaction is part of your integral makeup. But I cannot believe that the freedom to be able to make jabs at another person’s appearance is SO essential to you on a deep soul level that you would rather write off an entire friendship than take a look at that, yo. The reasonable reaction would have been to say, “Okay, Kele doesn’t like being teased about her appearance. Check. I’ll try to remember that.”

The only reason to play the “It’s just who I am” card is that you KNOW this behavior is questionable and you want a good excuse to refuse responsibility for it. You don’t want to do the work, because preserving your dysfunction is more important to you than your friends. Nice job not being hurtful.

I’ve done therapy on and off for thirty-five years, and you know what? You don’t get to play that card if you want to grow. There IS NO “Just who I am.” The collection of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, experiences and all that make up “who I am” is constantly shifting, fluid, and subject to change. You don’t want to make that change, fine. But own up to it, for gods’ sake. Otherwise you’re just wasting the time and energy of everyone who’s trying to be in a relationship with you.

This post is harsh, and I am afraid to publish it. I’m afraid because everyone else in our circle still associates with this person, and everyone will know who I mean. But I’ve never been any good at ignoring the elephant in the living room. I’ve never been good at making nice and keeping up appearances, especially where hypocrisy is involved. These days, when I see that people have retweeted stuff my former friend has said about “being a people pleaser” or posting memes about how “I’ll always have your back,” and it’s all I can do not to explode. Not to say, “Stop lying to yourself. You’re not a people pleaser. You please yourself, and your sense of guilt comes from being dishonest about it.” Not to say, “Sure, you’ll always have a friend’s back until they ask you to face something you don’t want to and you run away like a coward.”

I’m hoping publishing this blog will help me let go and move on. It may take a while, but I expect it will. I’m hoping it won’t let me in for censure from those who think I should have kept it to myself. If I do get flak for it, I expect I will learn to be okay with that, too.

But one thing I’m going to make perfectly clear: I’m not a challenging person because it’s “just the way I am.” If I wanted to, I could have chosen not to speak these thoughts. It would have been difficult, and it would have taken a longer time for me to get past them. But I could have done it. I choose to speak up because it’s healthier for me, because I understand that no one grows by being comfortable, and because I get to have a point of view that people might not like.

And how did I respond to finding out this friend valued her insensitive remarks more than she did our friendship? Two words:

“Her loss.”

Recognizing Toxic Friendships

Last night I stumbled across this Everyday Feminism article on toxic friendships. I ended up sharing it on my Facebook wall–yes, I still call it a wall, not a timeline. So sue me. I say “ended up sharing it” because I wasn’t sure I wanted to at first. I don’t question the writer’s experience, but most of what she said didn’t resonate with me. I don’t believe, for example, that we tend to dismiss toxic friendships because we see friendships as having less validity than romantic relationships. In my experience, the abuse that happens “between friends” is of the subtler variety–emotional rather than physical–and, as such, is harder to credit. I think, too, we actually give friends MORE leeway than we do romantic partners. We’re more apt to excuse toxic behaviors as “an off day,” or “she has a difficult time with criticism” BECAUSE we value our friendships and good, close friends are difficult to come by. I also don’t think negativity is in itself a sign of a toxic relationship, nor is an unequal level of investment.

But toxic friendships are all too common, and it’s all too easy to let them continue much, much too long. So I did share the article, and in the course of discussing it and some of my own take on the subject, one of my friends (Hi, Stef!) suggested I blog about it because she was interested in hearing more about my experience.

I had this friend, and she was toxic, and according to my therapist she nearly killed me. It’s been more than ten years since I cut her out of my life, and I still miss her sometimes. I still wish I hadn’t had to do what I did. I still remember her birthday. And I still don’t quite know how to talk about it.

We’d been friends a long time, twenty-five years. We first met when I was in eighth grade and she was in seventh. Then, she was best friends with a friend of mine’s sister, and as time went on, she became a member of my circle, a group of brilliant, artistic girls who had little use for social convention–or maybe didn’t understand it–and didn’t fit well into the strict class structure of the private school we all attended. Hearing about us later, another friend labeled us “The Original Riot Grrrls.” Maybe we were. It was the 70s, though, and we were all stuck in preppie hell, and we were all targets for bullying and shaming and…well, you get the picture. With one thing and another, we became closer than blood sisters, probably closer than was healthy. We had the shifting alliances and bitter infighting I am given to understand is normal for high-school girls, with all the intensity exponentially magnified by difficult home situations and chronic depression. After high school, the bunch of us split up and saw each other seldom, for one reason and another.

This one friend and I stayed in more regular contact, however. We ended up at the same college, and we were housemates a couple times. When I moved across country, sometimes she’d phone or write. And I was always glad to hear from her; it was always as if we’d never been apart. At the same time, though, whenever we spent any length of time together–I mean more than a couple months–I always ended up hurt and angry. She had these behavioral idiosyncrasies, affected voice and body language, a studied posture of superiority, that set my teeth on edge. But I never saw those things as a real problem, because it was just her way, and besides, I understood who she was under the mask. I understood her deep hurt. I didn’t take it personally, because I knew underneath she was a brilliant, fun, talented, warm person. So we kept enacting the same patterns over and over again.

This should have been my first clue, and I pass it on to you now: If there is a person in your life who keeps doing hurtful things, who doesn’t change, from whom you keep separating and with whom you keep getting back together, for whom you keep making excuses because “You know who they really are underneath,” that person is likely toxic. If you’re always the one trying to fix things and always seem to be the one taking the blame and/or responsibility for problems, you are likely in a toxic relationship.

Later we lost track of each other for years. I heard through my mother that my friend had become engaged, and I figured she had got married and gone off to have her own life. And I regretted a little the loss of friendship, but not enough to go out of my way to pursue it. This should have been my second clue.

A long time later, after I had moved to the town where I currently live, I got a letter from her and we got back in contact. She had relatives the next state over, and she and her then-boyfriend later-husband used to stop by for a few days on the way to visit them. She came for my wedding and stood up for me. My husband and I went east to visit several times. We became close again. We talked on the phone. She confided her indecision with her path in life, which had seemed so clear once upon a time. She called to cry when she lost her job, and when her plans fell apart, and when she didn’t know what to do.

And I began to think about suggesting she and her husband move out west. Well, of course I did! She was my friend. We had history. She was unhappy. And moving west to rural Colorado had been a new start for me and my husband. There was work if you were willing to work, and if pay was low, so were expenses. There was an artistic renaissance of sorts going on in my community. I thought it might be good for my friend to get out of the smothering city. I suggested it.

It took a couple years after the idea first came up, but eventually my friend and her husband moved west. They bought a house down the street from me. We–she and her husband and I and mine–started a Celtic band together. And things began to fall apart.

Almost from the beginning, I found myself having to defend my friend to others. On my recommendation she got a job at the local radio station, where her superior airs alienated the volunteer staff. I told myself she got strident because she felt insecure in a new position and wanted to prove herself. I encouraged her to relax and loosen up a bit; we weren’t in the city anymore and things were different here. People kept complaining to me about her judgmental attitude and her self-righteousness. I told them she was really okay, they just needed to get to know her (this would later backfire on me). Eventually she alienated her way out of a job, when she made hostile demands of the President of the Board. This was something else I found out the truth of later. At the time, I comforted her when she cried and claimed she hadn’t done anything wrong; the new management had got rid of her because she had supported the former manager, who had hired her.

This is the third clue. If, when bad things happen, your friend never takes responsibility for any part of it but always blames someone else, you are likely in a toxic relationship. Losing her job at the radio station was the first time my friend did this, but not the last. In fact, near the end of our relationship, she said, “The projects I get involved in always end the same way, badly. I don’t want that to happen again, but it’s not my fault.”

In the band, my friend wanted to be the center of attention, but she refused to do the work to merit it. She also refused to admit she wanted what everyone knew she wanted. I was invested–I was default bandleader–in everyone having a good time playing music together and playing out on occasion when we could. In every rehearsal, I checked in with the band to ask what people wanted. I encouraged them to come forward with songs they wanted to do. My friend refused to be honest about these things. When I suggested she take a turn as singer, she said, “Oh, I just want to focus on playing the fiddle.” Then she went to other people behind my back to spread the story that I was so controlling I wouldn’t let her sing because I wanted to be the only girl singer (yet another thing I found out later). And I might have been able to deal with that if she had actually done the work to improve her fiddle playing. Instead, she consistently refused to learn tune sets we had agreed as a band we should learn, putting it down to difficulty, or lack of time, or the fact that she didn’t read music well. Then in the middle of rehearsal, she would whip out some tune she had “just picked up”–never one on the list we had agreed upon–and play it in an aggressive manner, challenging anyone to confront her. I cannot begin to describe how infuriating this was. Everyone knew it was going on. But trying to address the issue only resulted in hostility. Every rehearsal became like walking on eggs. She was so unable to handle criticism that more than once she actually stormed out of rehearsal when someone suggested she tune her instrument.

The fourth clue: Lies and Sabotage. Both these things make it impossible for your toxic friend to get what she wants while enabling her to blame everyone but herself for it.

And I still made excuses for her. She’d lost both parents recently. She wasn’t used to working in a supportive group. She expected hostility and criticism and was trying to fulfill her expectation of getting them by manipulating the people around her, but it was because she’d had a difficult time in social situations. If I just refused to become combative, which would prove to her that she was right, if I remained quietly supportive, she’d come to understand that life didn’t have to be the way she expected it to be. She could let herself be vulnerable and grow.

Yeah, that was never going to happen. As an aside, in later years I can to believe that the real problem was that she wanted to be a “rock star;” i.e., she wanted the limelight, the center of attention, the popularity and notoriety, the small-town fame. Yet she had no musical talent whatsoever, and I’m pretty sure she knew it. I hate to declare anyone talentless in any arena, and I kept thinking, “If she just would do the work instead of being so belligerent…” But I’m pretty sure no amount of work would have made a musician out of her.

Well, anyway, I kept trying. I didn’t like the job of booking gigs, so I suggested my friend should take that over. She was all for it. And that’s when the gaslighting started. If you’re not familiar with the term, it means “using systemic manipulation to undermine a person’s perception of reality.” It comes from the 1938 play, Gas-Light, in which a husband drives his wife crazy by dimming and brightening the lights in their house, and denying there’s any change when she questions it. It’s a common technique of sociopaths. Here’s an example: We had two gigs we were considering, one in Durango, about six hours’ drive away, and another in Delta. The Durango gig was at night, and could be expected to end well after two in the morning. The Delta gig was the next morning at eleven. I told my friend I would do one or the other but not both, because I did not want to play until two in the morning and then have to get up at five and drive seven hours back to Delta. She booked both gigs. When I reminded her of my conditions, she said, “You never said that. You told me to book both gigs.” And furthermore, she added, “You know, Kel, a real band would be expected to keep those kind of hours if they were on tour.” Intimating that our band was not real, that if I wanted to participate in a “real” band I was not allowed to have any boundaries, and basically the way I wanted to live my life was invalid.

The fifth clue: Gaslighting and Undermining. If your friend consistently challenges your desires for your life and your experience of reality and supports her own version of events with compulsive lying, GET OUT.

Since this blog post is already over 2000 words long, I’m going to try to cut it short. I got depressed, so depressed. I’d started the band to share joy in music, and by that point I detested music. It’s only recently, over ten years later, that I have begun to sing again on occasion and have begun to entertain the possibility of pulling out my flute. I got sick and was hospitalized with gallbladder disease. My friend books gigs for our band for the time I was in recovery from surgery and evinced astonishment when I told her there was no way I could stand up and perform a few days after my gut had been cut open. She found a couple session players to take the place of myself and my husband, and told them I was too lazy to keep a commitment. Shortly afterward, my therapist told me, “I don’t like telling clients what to do, but if you don’t get that person out of your life you’re going to end up dead.” So I broke up the band and I wrote my now-ex friend a long letter explaining exactly why. I still feel like a miserable coward for not confronting her to her face, but there was no way I could have done it.

A few weeks after I sent my former friend the letter, I found a box of mutilated photographs from my wedding in my backyard. I’m fairly sure I know where they came from.

My friend stayed around the area for a little while, living right down the street. It made me sick to look out of my dining room window. After a year or two, her husband fell in love with someone else and divorced her. She floated around town for a while and many people found her charming. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t friends with her any longer. When I tried to explain, they invariably said, “Oh, bands break up.” And they still didn’t understand. My friend tried being in a couple other bands, but eventually she got kicked out of them all for her hostility and rudeness and no one would play with her. Eventually she burned too many bridges and moved away. She still owns the house down the street, I think. My therapist saw her a few months back. She asked if she could have my therapist’s dog. No one knows why.

All the projects she gets involved in end the same way, badly. She doesn’t think she wants it to happen again. But it’s not her fault. It’s never her fault.

A few weeks after I broke up the band, my husband met this former friend for a beer because he wanted to find some kind of closure with her. He told her, “I never felt like I really got to know you and be your friend.” Her response? “Oh, was that important to you?” And part of it I’m sure came from her having a habit of never taking responsibility for her actions, never being honest, and coming at every conversation from a position of superiority. Turning every attempt to address her honestly into…a contest of wit and defenses. But part of it, I know now, came from the pure fact that she was clueless about how friendships work. She could be a remarkable sycophant–she loved making up to people she viewed as being in power. And she could be a tyrant, a superior, a dictator, greedy for all the privilege inherent in the titles. But she could never be an equal. I’m sure she’s very lonely, and I think that’s very sad. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I did everything I could ten years ago.

If any of this story sounds familiar to you, please get help. Get out. Don’t cling to a friend because you understand where they’re coming from or because you have history. You’re just hurting yourself.