I was going to write a post about social media and how it changes us. But I’m scrapping that to write about pain and how it changes us.
This is complicated. Because here’s the thing: hurt people hurt people. Damaged people can’t NOT damage other people. Vicious cycle.
I hate the term triggered. Triggered = an image, words, sensations, scenes that cause someone to relive horrible life experiences. I wish we had a different word for this. First, because it’s a gun-related word and I hate guns and associating guns with a mental health issue just feels like a bad idea. Second, because people who actually ENJOY triggering other people and actively seek out people to do this to love the word and dance impishly about sing-songing it when they’re successful. I really hate it when assholes do that, and those are the kinds of people who probably just need to be rounded up, put on a plane, and dropped off on a deserted island so they can Lord of the Flies each other.
Most of us have experienced pain at different levels in our lives. If you’re very fortunate, you’ll have been raised by two people who made mistakes but did their very best at raising you, and you’ll experience heart break and betrayal and loss like we all do but come out of it philosophical and not hurting anyone else too badly because of what you’ve experienced because you had two relatively decent human beings in your life who taught you how to brush off other people’s malignancies and go on. Or maybe you didn’t have two examples, but one really good one, somewhere in your life.
What’s really fun about being human is that sometimes you can even have all that but your family’s particular dysfunctions have taught you some really crappy coping behaviors. Combine that with child- and young adulthood trauma, throw in some really weak boundaries because of it, add pinch of a failed relationship and a heaping tablespoon of loss and grief, sprinkle with toxic social media culture and some poor decisions, top with a couple of human coyotes, then cook in a boiling hot volcano for a few years…and there you go. Easily triggered person climbing a monstrous volcano, falling about 500 feet every time they scale 600. And if the people who love them are dealing with their own traumas and crap and monstrous volcanic setbacks? Well, that’s a tasty recipe, isn’t it.
Some people’s traumas are easy to see and feel compassion for – experiencing something horrific like being raped and beaten and left clinging to life, surviving only because a Good Samaritan called 911 is something most of us can feel sympathy for and forgive easily if we upset them unknowingly and they explain why. Some people go to war and watch their buddies and innocent children get blown to bits right in front of them. There are people walking around in this country right now who watched people jump from the 110th story of one of the World Trade Center towers, and they wake up at least 100 times a year from screaming nightmares. I’d say a good 99.5% of decent people would hear any of those scenarios and feel compassion and sympathy for people suffering from them. If they said or did something that freaked a person out, bringing back bad memories or feelings or sensations from that life experience, 99.5% of people would profusely apologize and quickly adjust their behavior to make sure they didn’t do that again.
But what about very quiet abuse? What about emotional abuse like gaslighting or verbal abuse like control? What about a person who has such crappy personal boundaries because of their family’s dysfunctions that, over and over, throughout their life, they’ve allowed inappropriate people in and each time that person’s trust has been betrayed to the point they even doubt themselves when they speak up? Listen, some families are completely dysfunctional. I work with them from time to time – these are the people who have fascinating stories for Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil episodes and the rest of us are enthralled and very thankful we didn’t end up in that clan. My college roommate’s father drank himself to sleep every night and her mother screamed at them non-stop, dinner was hit or miss, and took pills to sleep every night leaving them to their own devices. Every morning she just knew she had to get up, get dressed, get her little sister up and dressed, make breakfast and lunch for both of them, and get them on the bus to school because school was the only way out of that kind of life for herself and her sister, she instinctively knew. She was SEVEN. That’s pretty obvious dysfunction and I’d say most of us look at people like that as pretty amazing for making it out alive and okay and functioning from that situation because they actually are. But the vast majority of us grow up with “normal” dysfunctions, dysfunctions the rest of the world shrugs its shoulders at and goes, “Life isn’t supposed to be easy. Toughen up, buttercup.” It does not make our experiences less traumatic, though. Just differently traumatic. Kind of like the tail side of a coin.
Because here’s the thing about that kind of abuse: it’s very real, but you can’t see it. Sometimes you can’t even define it. Often you know something is off, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. You just know two and two isn’t adding up. Or what you were told and what you’re seeing aren’t clicking. It keeps happening, until finally you explode and then are told you’re being mean or overthinking or paranoid or hysterical or psychotic. And then what if it this is coming from people who also tell you they love you, but continue to do things that cause you to explode. Would that garner compassion or sympathy from many people? Probably not. Particularly if a person views themselves as someone who’s strong and overcome a lot of trauma themselves. Toughen up, buttercup. We all have it rough, you’re not unique. (But we are unique. Each and every one of us.)
Let me tell you a story from my childhood.
One summer before I went to 4th grade, there were two little neighbor boys who were hurting me. They were calling me names and one of them finally hauled off and hit me, hard, on purpose. I told my mom, who went next door to let his mom know what the boys were doing. The boy who hit me stood there and denied denied denied. His mom believed him. As a grown up mother now, I get it. I get why you have to believe your child. But there I was, standing there shaking and in tears. He was fine and very calm, denying. And because his mother was asking leading question after leading question, I finally just said he hadn’t done what I said he’d done. He hadn’t hit me or called me names. Right now, in my memory, I can see the satisfaction on both their faces. All of us standing there, lying to each other, only two of us satisfied with the results of telling a lie.
Later, I told my mom I’d lied and he had done what I said. Of course she was upset and embarrassed; why had I said he’d done that and then said he didn’t? It’s hard enough to explain emotional abuse to people when you’re an adult don’t even know when it’s happening, but as a child all I could say was “I don’t know.” Fortunately, my mom believed me, because she’d seen how shaky I’d been and how upset…and maybe she’d had a similar experience as a child, and so she got it. So the only thing she could tell me, at that point, was to not do that again. Be strong, stand up for myself. If I’m telling the truth, say it and don’t back down.
My entire life, I’ve ignored my mom’s advice. My entire life. Even going forward with my own parents at times. With friends. With lovers. With strangers. While driving. (Okay fine, usually not while driving.)
I’ve backed down. Because it’s easier. Because it’s more peaceful. Because it makes the other person feel better. Because it’s easier. Because it’s easier. Because it’s easier. Because then I won’t be alone. Because then they won’t leave. Because I don’t like when this happens or that happens, or it hurts to see this or it really hurts when they let me down or when they said that thing or did this other thing, that hurt. But it’s just easier. It’s easier. Because it’s easier.
I’m reading a book right now called Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore, and in one part of the book, he writes about how the main character Milo says something to Suzie (aka Death) who he’s getting know. She asks him after he comes back from one life what he’ll miss the most about that life and he thought about the sleazy life he’d just lived. “Christmas,” he said. “That was my favorite.” But his favorite thing about that life was actually a girl named Peanut, backstage at Ozzfest. And Suzie “let him get away with it. That’s how people make friends.”
But we all do this, at work, at home, in old friendships. Not just at the beginning. Because it’s easier. I think.
But what it does is it causes trauma, and then I’ve got to wade through things other people do, unintentionally and unthinkingly, that upset me. “You don’t sound crazy or dumb. Too many screwed up men have touched your life. It is understandable.” Words by a friend when I talked to her about a trigger from this morning and how I handled it. Later, I went into Linked In because an email alerted me I was being searched, and I saw something else that was a trigger. Then, I started to think about Event A back in June 2015 that led to Event B which led to C then D then E then F then G…etc and so forth. I’m not perfect, I fuck up all the time in how I handle things. I hurt other people. Hurt people hurt people. So now I’m being made to pay for the damage that caused me damage that caused me to cause damage. Vicious cycle. But it’s fine. It’s cool. Toughen up, butter cup. I’ve dealt with people like this my entire life. See previous story.
But you know what I’m doing today that’s different than I did prior to 2015? I’m speaking up about it. When it happens. I’m not keeping it in and letting it fester. When someone does something that bothers me, I say: This bothered me. And then I watch carefully how they respond.
Even with Miss M’s dad…do you know how much changing I did for him? How much backing down I did with him? There is a list of reasons for why Miss M’s dad and I shouldn’t ever live under the same roof again…the number one reason on that list is Invalidation. And it’s not like I’m not guilty of that, too. I’m the biggest eye roller and invalidator of men I know. But it’s no good to do that in a marriage or other love relationship. You have to be the other person’s biggest fan, even when you want to gouge their eyes out. You have to be their screamiest cheerleader; if they write a book or a poem or build a car from scratch or get a new job, you should let the world know if you’re on social media. And if you’re not, you should take them out to dinner and let the waitstaff know. If they clean the kitchen, you should thank them out loud. If they finally pay off a debt, you should high five them.
Instead, what we do is invalidate each other when we speak up with a need or a hurt or a concern. We blame the other person for their own feelings. We tell them they’re over-reacting, or overthinking, or hindering them, or making them feel insecure. We refuse to just say: I’m sorry. I didn’t think that would create that reaction in you. I’ll do better next time. And then…put action to our words. Even if it’s hard. Because you know what else is easier besides just backing down? Continuing to do things we like, even when we know it upsets a person we love deeply. And that’s reason number 2 Miss M’s dad and I can’t ever live together again – he sincerely needed me to do certain things and be a certain way, and it hurt him every time I chose not to do that thing or be that way. And that caused me an enormous amount of anger and stress and resentment. And it caused him to hyper-criticize me. And eventually there were explosions. And then…silence. And that, darling grasshoppers, is how a relationship death spirals. It is a testament to the healing power of love that we still view ourselves as a team when it comes to Miss M, that he gives me his opinions and on my end of the phone I flip him the bird. That we are friends in spite of the fact I never made the photo memory album on Snapfish he wanted of Miss M’s first grade year and summer but didn’t want to make himself because he likes to boss other people around…and that he now just sighs and accepts that sometimes I’m just not going to say a word but no I’m not doing that because. BECAUSE. There is still love. But I cannot live with him again. Love relationships are very hard, because we all come in with baggage.
Since leaving my marriage, I’ve ended a friendship with a mentally unstable woman who wasn’t well, and made me very uncomfortable…many times. I’ve ended a friendship with a married man who wanted things from me I didn’t want to give him and he scared the shit out of me to retaliate. I’ve ended a friendship that could have been really sweet and supportive and at times was, but started out wrong and was mostly to help the friend’s egoic needs rather than be a give-and-take situation and therefore off-and-on toxic because of that, and toxic beyond belief at the end. I will not go back to any of these friendships and don’t believe any of them want to know me anymore either and agree that’s for the best. And here I am writing about mental health and compassion, but please know I’m also not saying we have to subject ourselves over and over to people who aren’t firmly planted in reality or want to take advantage of us. It is okay to throw away people who are doing that. But if I genuinely love someone, I back down. A lot. One day, maybe I’ll find someone who will back down for me.
Yesterday, Kate Spade apparently took her own life. Today, once again, we’re all talking about the importance of not stigmatizing each other’s unique brain chemistries and balances. Tomorrow, we’ll all go back to invalidating each other and backing down and continuing to do things that upset our loved ones and then keep doing them because it’s easier. We’ll let our damage rule our emotions and punch holes in our hearts. Because it’s just easier. (But it’s really not.)