Thursday, February 27, 2014

the black hole of need

When I was a senior in high school, I was sitting in physics class one day when a girl I didn't really know started to cry. She was sitting a couple of seats back and a couple of rows over from me, and although she was probably making at least some effort to be quiet, it was soon apparent to everyone in the class that she was upset.

So. This was physics class. The male-female ratio was at least 4:1, maybe higher. I was, for better or worse, the female sitting closest to the front of the class, and the teacher--one of my all-time favorites-- looked at me with pleading in his eyes. Please, do something. Don't make me deal with a hysterical female. I dutifully got up, went back to her desk, and led her to the girl's restroom.

Where she proceeded to continue to fall apart, more loudly and with more abandon. She had only moved to town a few months ago, she had no friends, she had been thinking about suicide. I was raised to be helpful, and my religious beliefs told me that I should help those in need, and I sincerely did want to help. So I took her (we'll call her Lydia) under my wing. I introduced her to my friends, we talked on the phone, I tried to get her involved in activities, I told her about our church (because at that time in my life, I believed church/faith/Christianity was/were the answer to everything) and prayed for her.

I had seen my parents take on various troubled people in similar circumstances, and after a few months, the person would heal from whatever trauma they were dealing with and they would get better. They would move on, grateful to my parents for helping them out. But Lydia wasn't like that. She was probably mentally ill, although we certainly didn't talk about those things back then, let alone deal with them. She didn't get better.

She continued to be difficult and needy and prone to drama. None of my friends really cared for her, but I didn't know how to back off. She seemed to me to be a black hole of need--no matter how much I poured into her, she needed more. I ended up spending a major portion of my senior year of high school hanging out with someone I didn't really like and didn't really know what to do with, because I felt like I should. I should love her, I should help her. I only escaped because the next fall I went off to college, while she stayed home and went to the junior college.

In hindsight, I probably did every single thing wrong that you could do in that situation. I had no boundaries, with Lydia or anyone else, no way to slow down her long, draining assault on my resources, and no way to get any perspective on a different way of doing things. I ended up feeling resentful and burned out. Honestly, I'm not sure I'd do much better now. After Lydia and several other similar experiences over the years, now I solve the problem by just not getting personally involved with black-hole people. We donate money to various organizations in our town that deal with them. Is that enough?

I'm not sure. Probably not. But I've been thinking about this quite a bit recently. I've decided at the very least that it's OK to channel my desire to help into an avenue that suits my particular situation. That, actually, was part of my reasoning behind becoming a tax prep volunteer. It was something contained, structured, but with a definite tangible benefit, that I could do without getting sucked into a situation with infinite needs.

This originally had a different ending, but I decided to make that into its own post. To be continued.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

a break from my previously scheduled break

TRIGGER ALERT: If you are sensitive to issues of childhood sexual abuse, please avoid this post. 

I'm still on a blogging break. I just needed to post this one. Also, I'm not using full names because I was reminded recently that google searches can bring attention to things you didn't plan for widespread consumption (I'll tell you that story another time, as it is much more cheerful than this one).

If you've been around awhile, you may remember that I wrote a post a couple of years ago about what it was like to be a survivor of sexual abuse while all of that mess at UPenn was happening, and how difficult it was to have it thrown in your face all the time. Guess what? Thank you, Mr. Famous Film Director (hereafter referred to as FFD), it's happening again.

I can't comment on their situation at all, because I don't know either of them and I have no idea what happened. Dylan is doing what she has to do, and I'm not going to judge or blame her for that. Although I've seen and enjoyed a couple of the FFD's films, I'm not a huge fan of his, and it means nothing to me to either go or not go to his films.

But there are a few parallels to my own history and so I've been re-thinking some of my own decisions. Is it necessary to go public to heal? My abuser was also a public person, although on a miniscule stage compared to the FFD. It's a difficult call to make. If you say nothing, then (obviously) no one knows. There is a feeling that the perp is getting away with it. Or that you are letting your fear of confrontation impede your healing. But on the other hand, if you're a private person, making a public statement and causing a public scandal is its own kind of trauma. I'm a very private person, so I decided long ago that I would rather suffer in silence than try to make a big public statement about my abuse. 

I mean suffer literally. As Dylan has stated, it is enormously difficult to maintain your trust in your own perceptions, your own experience, when that experience is being denied again and again by the people around you, people who have no idea what happened, but who respect and admire the perpetrator.

Let me back up a little bit. There were certain aspects of my abuse that I was aware of throughout my childhood and up into my twenties. When I was about thirty, I had one of those "repressed memory" situations where I "remembered" some further, more explicit abuse. I've never been able to determine in my own mind how much of that other, more specific abuse actually occurred-- I was very young at the time, maybe about four or five, and the memories are hazy at best. 

Believe me, you don't have to educate me about repressed memories--either the reasons why we should believe them, or why they are complete bunk, depending on who you talk to. I've done lots of reading on this topic, and I've heard both sides, and all I have to go on is my own experience. And my own experience is inconclusive, I have to say. Twenty years later, I'm still not sure exactly what happened.

So for the record, when I speak of my abuse, I'm talking about the things I definitely remember, the things I knew about before the "repressed memories" appeared. But it wasn't until the repressed memories resurfaced (or my brain made them up, depending on which side you're on), that I took those other events--the ones I definitely remember-- seriously.

Because they "weren't that bad." I wasn't raped, I wasn't sodomized. I was just shamed and embarrassed and miserable--all in a specifically sexual context-- and I wasn't about to say one single word to anybody. I wasn't even old enough to believe I was at fault, I just knew I was in an ugly, uncomfortable situation and I had to deal with it alone.

Now that I type that out, it occurs to me to wonder, why did I think I had to deal with it alone? Did he threaten me? Did I try to talk to someone and they didn't believe me? Was I sure before I even tried to say anything that no one would believe me? I honestly don't know the answer to that. I just know that it never occurred to me to say anything to anyone until I was in my thirties.

Once I did finally tell someone about it, I was obsessed with my recovery for two or three years. I needed to be. That's how you work through it. There was a long time when I thought that the fact that I had been sexually abused as a child was the most important thing about me, the defining thing that made me who I am. But eventually as I worked with a therapist, attended a support group, and read and read and wrote and wrote, I began to heal.

At some point when I was in my late 30s, I realized one day that I hadn't thought about my abuse in weeks. It made me so happy. It still comes up --here I am, you know, typing this-- and every once in awhile it gives me a few really bad hours or even days. But it doesn't consume me anymore, and it sure as hell doesn't define who I am. 

Besides my support group and my therapist, I did tell some people about it, but other than my immediate family, I never told anyone who knows my abuser. For one thing, I was fairly sure that I was his only victim. I was dealing with this as an adult, so I could rationally think through the fact that most abusers have a pattern, and the pattern of behavior he exhibited with me was something that almost certainly couldn't have happened with anyone else--and that's all I'm going to say about that. If I'd been worried that he was still abusing someone else, maybe I would have made some sort of public statement.

For another thing, there were plenty of people who had positive interactions with my abuser who never saw this side of him. It didn't make sense to me to destroy their experience of him when I was capable of dealing with it myself. And also--it would be dishonest to deny it--I was afraid of the consequences. 

None of us can say what happened between Dylan and the FFD. I'm inclined to believe her because her story dovetails so well with my own, but people have lied about abuse before. Part of me wants to support her in whatever she needs to do to heal, but part of me also wants to ask her, what is the point in trying to get millions of people to make a judgement about something that they are completely incapable of making a judgement about? If she needed to say her piece and if saying it succeeded in giving her strength and peace of mind, then it was entirely worth it. The victim's right to heal takes precedence over whatever other needs might be going on here, and if it did help her along the road to recovery, that in itself is enough reason for her to do it.  

But I'm not sure I buy parts of the conversation about what it takes to heal from abuse, and I certainly don't buy "if you don't say anything, it means he got away with it." I know my therapist pushed me (gently) to go public. You can't heal unless you open up about what happened. If you don't publicly state your experience, you're lying by omission. You're still in denial about what happened. Of course it was never that blunt--a good therapist would never be that directive, and both of these therapists were great. But they made it clear, subtly, what they felt was the path to healing. But here is something else: someone who abuses a child is dealing with demons the rest of us can't even imagine--I know that because I could feel them. He didn't get away with anything.

For what it's worth, I did eventually confront my abuser, and he absolutely, categorically denied that anything untoward had ever happened between us. The confrontation was an enormously difficult thing to do, and it was entirely unsatisfying. My word against his word, my hazy memories against his firm denial. If I had it to do over again knowing how it would have turned out, I'm not sure I would do it again. I guess the one benefit is that now I know what he would say--before I confronted him, I had no idea how he would respond. A part of me secretly hoped that he would break down, confess all, and feel terrible about it. But that didn't happen. 

I think there is a script among some therapists. You need to do x, y and z to heal. You must confront your abuser, you must publicly speak your truth. But you know, that puts a lot of burden on the victim, especially if the victim is a private, introverted person. It makes you vulnerable to hate and backlash from people who have no idea what's going on, and it sets you up to be ridiculed and accused-in-return by your abuser. It also requires a big public exposure, which is in itself a form of punishment for an introverted person.

For me what has been more important is to learn to trust my own experience, my own knowledge of what happened to me. I'm leaving justice and karma to someone else (it will possibly sound too hokey to say capital-S Someone Else, but I'll do it anyway.) And that has been damn difficult, and it's something I still work on--not just in this particular context, but in other contexts as well. It also made a huge difference when he died several years ago. I've made major strides in being free of the whole thing since his death, even if he was frail and elderly at the end. I am often glad he's gone, and maybe that's my own little form of revenge.

So no conclusions, this is just what I've been thinking about.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

regroup regather

You know, I occasionally overload myself, and now would be one of those times. For reasons that are no longer clear to me, I signed up to be a volunteer tax preparer with the VITA program through our local United Way. In spite of the fact that it is not really an interest of mine, and that the training has been far more time consuming than I was expecting (and thank God for that since the alternative would have been to turn the tax-ignorant me out upon the unsuspecting taxpayers of our county), I'm feeling no inclination to quit. And I'm teaching this class on Sense and Sensibility, and I'm both a participant and a co-leader of the small groups we're starting at our church, and I'm behind on two other projects (one grad-school related and the other the months-late revision of our family cookbook)(*wince* MMM and cheery-o).

So, in other words, I'm a bit swamped. So blogging/facebook/internet time are the things that are getting booted from my list of things to do. I'll be back in a couple of weeks, maybe three. And of course I'm still checking e-mail and probably (because of my groups) I'll be in and out of FB occasionally, but for the most part, I'm gathering in my attention span so I can get some of this stuff done. See you soon.

Monday, February 03, 2014

the zen-ish moment

Many years ago, I discovered what I think of as the travel mindset. Getting packed and ready to go may be a frantic mess, but once you get to the airport and get in line to check in, you let all the travel anxiety go. You just insert yourself into the travel system and let the system take care of you.

Like everybody, I have some travel horror stories to tell, like the time I got stuck in Salt Lake City for three days while trying to get back home from a weekend trip to California. But horror stories aside, for the most part, you get where you need to go. You just have to have a good book (or three) and some food (granola bars, bag of nuts, etc), and you're set. Well, if you're me, you also have to have some dramamine, but you get the idea.

I look at it as a completely acceptable, valid excuse to sit and read all day. Sometimes I wander around the airport, see what's there, buy a magazine or a cheesy souvenir. Over the years, this has worked out so well that now the travel day--which I used to dread--is one of my favorite parts of vacation.

Of course it helps that I'm not travelling with toddlers anymore. Thank the saints and all the stars. Although it does help, even with kids. I first started trying this out when MadMax was 3 or 4, and even though I would still worry about entertaining him, I could let go of everything else--what if we miss our flight, what if they lose our bags, what if, what if, WHAT IF?? --> all of that stuff, which I am fairly expert at, you can just let go.

I've discovered that something similar works at the post office. Not always, because standing in line at the post office is right up there in my list of things that might be described as hell on earth, but usually I can just relax and stand there in line and not worry about how long it's taking. Sometimes I chat with complete and utter strangers (like many introverts, I find it easier to make small talk with strangers than with people I know).

I'm finding as I play with this idea that those moments of calm can occur anywhere, anytime. I think of it as zen calm, but since I've never seriously undertaken zen discipline, it may not be very close. Zen-ish, then. In the midst of traffic, waiting to pick up the kid at school, any time I'm in a situation that is out of my control, if I just give in to it, let go of the need to be in control, I can reach a sort of calm stillness. (I typed clam stillness first, which is possibly different than what I mean, but I bet clams live a pretty zen life.)

I've never experienced true enlightenment, I don't think. When I think of capital-E Enlightenment, Elizabeth Gilchrist's phrase from Eat, Pray Love comes to mind: she says she was "catapulted into the lap of God." As I said when I reviewed it, I didn't care for that book, but that phrase stuck in my head. A moment of perfect bliss, feeling like you are connected to everything and everything is connected to you, suffused by light and love-- I've never been there.

But sometimes these little pockets of zen-ish calm at an airport or in the post office lead to a kind of enlargement of consciousness, a feeling of accessing something beyond myself (see previous post about spirituality). Especially when I'm reading. And those moments .... oh, let's just say they make up for a lot of other moments of confusion, fear, anguish, etc.

I typed that much on Friday, plus a lot more that I just cut and put in another post that will probably appear on Thursday, and then let it sit over the weekend in accordance with my new plan to let things stew a few days before I click publish. Then last night I had one of those other moments, maybe you have them, maybe you don't, where I get tangled up in a load of crap. I sent an e-mail to a family group and got back a bunch of very sneering, negative vibes--which may have been real, or may have been my projection of things I've felt in the past, I don't know which and it doesn't really matter. I started to panic about my new class, which starts tonight. I had a strange experience at the grocery store yesterday afternoon which didn't really register at the time but came back full force.

So there I was at about 12:30 a.m. last night, letting myself get buried under this load of self-contempt and self-criticism. It's a hell of a lot harder to try to find zen-ish calm under those circumstances than it is while you're reading a book at DIA. But I've been thinking about this quite a bit recently, so I tried. And it helped. I don't think I got to zen calm, but I got back to the point where I could go to sleep.

Work in progress.