Why I Hate Halloween

Spooky and Magical, by S. Dhamyja.

I hate Halloween.

I’ll tell you why.  Starting sometime in September and now in July, the Halloween costumes and decorations and candy go up in stores all over the country, and as the orange factor increases, so does my fear level, thoughts about suicide and worthlessness, and general, overall nasty internal state.  I also usually get the flu.

This is a good year.  All I’ve come down with is one of those snotty, itchy rhinoviruses that will have me looking like Rudolph by morning.

In Choice, I describe the reasons I feel this way.  That day in the garage with my dad was Halloween, and it’s not that the whole thing replays itself in my mind every year.  Bits of it do.

Fear does.  What I thought.  And that overwhelming, horrific confrontation with evil.

Hangman’s noose. Wikipedia.

Because the thing about people like my dad–who has a marked sense of grandiosity–is that they require others to support their delusions about themselves and the world.  Reinforcing for them whatever warped ideas they might have can be a matter of life and death.

Sometimes, if a madman like that is your captor, the pull to mirror the beliefs and emotions of someone upon whom you are entirely dependent is simply too strong.  We are, after all, social beings, wired to think to at least to some extent what other people think.

But there is also this other element.  The insertion of reality into the grandiose fantasy of a narcissist or sociopath is a dangerous undertaking.  Survival is important.

So if my dad thought I had brought a mock execution upon myself, so be it.  If he thought I had no worth and no value, that was okay too.  If he had thought I was a potato, I’m pretty sure the nightmares I used to have at this time of year would involve being dug up from underground, baked, and served with butter and sour cream.

Thoughts are a part of what happened.

I’ll tell you what what conclusions I have come to about all of this now that this is all out in the open for me and I can start to make sense of it for myself.

I think I’m a person.  My therapist says from time to time I’m a good person.  I’m not so sure about that.  It also really isn’t the point for me.

I’m a person, which means that I have choices–at times very narrow ones, and now much less constricted.  I have the freedom to make either good or bad choices, to behave like either a good or bad human being, and maybe often like a little of both.

I have the freedom to fail and to make mistakes, to do the best I can at life which may at times mean falling short of the mark.  No one will hang me for it.

You have no idea how long it has taken or how difficult it has been to get to this place.

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Unsolicited, Bad Advice

“You have to put it behind you.”

“You have to decide you are free of the past.”

“You need to go out and forget all about it.”

“Don’t go internal.”

“You shouldn’t think so much.”

“Keep busy.”

Anyone?

“Let go.” Perhaps my least favorite myth. Your problems are not birds. They won’t fly away and leave you alone.

Bad advice.  All of it.  But these are real phrases I’ve heard–some of them yesterday, some of them 10 years ago.  They have not always been directed at me, but they were always directed at someone who was expressing a painful emotional state.  They were said with good intentions, and were meant to help.

They don’t.  Not unless your real goal is to avoid solving the problems that are troubling you.  They are ways of maintaining a sickness of the soul without either fixing it or being annihilated by it–every last one of them.  They are what you do when you lack the courage or the tools to deal with life as it currently stands for you.

Here is a further list of how to maintain whatever dysfunction you are trying to maintain.

Tip number 1: Numb your feelings.  If you feel something you don’t want to feel, change the emotional subject.  Engage in addicting or artificially happiness-inducing activities, such as excessive social networking, spending time with unnecessarily dramatic friends or having high-conflict relationships that allow you to keep your attention on problems that aren’t really problems.  Use a substance.  Over-eat.  Obsess over a non-issue, like your appearance (which is fine) or your weight (when it isn’t dangerously unhealthy).  Worry about something happening that isn’t happening.

Tip number 2 Avoid thinking about the problem.  If you don’t think about it, you don’t have to solve it.

Tip number 3:  Distract yourself.  As much as necessary.  (See tips 1 & 2).

Tip number 4: Minimize the problem or imagine it has simpler solutions than are realistic.  It is not “that bad.”  You can fix it with herbs and acupuncture, or a new job, a new diet, religion, or a new dress–anything other than making a real change in yourself.

Tip number 5: Deny the problem.  It doesn’t bother you.  You are past it.  It was a long time ago.  You’ve let it go.  Meanwhile, the problem continues to affect how you think, feel, and act, and you continue to live in ways that are causing you further numbness or pain.  But if you say it isn’t real, you may be able to hypnotize yourself into believing it isn’t.

To backpedal a little, we all do those things to some extent from time to time when we are overwhelmed by a problem or when it just isn’t important enough to face at that moment.  When I am unreasonably annoyed at having to wait in line longer than I would like to buy something I need because I am overtired and cranky, distracting myself is a good temporary solution until I can get my suddenly 2-year-old self home for a lie-down.  It can also buy you time to learn real coping skills when life suddenly hands you more than you are prepared to handle.

If you have just been dealt an important loss or subjected to intense trauma, you may need to shift your attention away from your distress and calm down enough to get the bills paid and dinner on for a while.  It can help to numb out just a hair.  After all, life must go on, even if you wish it wouldn’t.

Distracting, avoiding, and numbing can all buy you a bit of a break from a painful emotional state so that you can keep going.  They aren’t techniques you should never use.

But if they become first-line coping strategies, that can become a permanent state.  They lead to a life half-lived.  One in which your usual, baseline state is distracted, avoidant, and numb.

If you want a different kind of life, my advice is to work hard at solving whatever problem is causing you pain.  This will involve feeling; there are feelings embedded in the problem for you, as well as feelings involved in any attempt to change the self.  But hard work is the only effective response I have ever found.

Choice

Photo Credit: Associated Press.

If someone holds a gun to your head, do you still have the freedom to choose whether to disobey?

I think you do.  Choices always involve consequences.  Choosing requires a willingness to tolerate the consequences.  Even with a gun at your temple, you can still choose to allow yourself to be shot.

Adults in any situation have choices.  Our choices become more constrained as the consequences become less and less tolerable.  But they remain choices.   I wouldn’t say the same thing about children, because children don’t always have minds of their own.  They may literally think what an adult tells them to think.  But adults can choose.  In any situation.  All it requires is a willingness to be shot.

I made what seem to me all of the important choices in my life before I was 16.  They remain the foundation for everything else that has happened to me.  I chose to be a vegetarian.  I chose to stop being a Christian.  I chose to come to terms with being a lesbian.

I am proud of the choices I made.  I also have mixed feelings about them.  They weren’t in some cases the choices I should have had to make, and some of them were outright gambles.

I chose to stop allowing at least certain types of abuse to happen to me.  That choice is the one I wonder about.

My mother was physically abusive.  Wooden hangers, wooden spoons, belts, brushes and a lot of other things that were long and had handles and lay within easy reach made good weapons.  Hard objects used with a lot of force on small children’s backs and arms and legs and sometimes heads hurt.  They hurt even medium-sized children.  It’s also in some way terribly degrading.

I was 13 when I had decided I’d had enough.  I’m a small person.  I must have been under 90 pounds at the time, but my mother is a small person too.  I had an even chance.

I didn’t avoid the blows.  I held out my hands, she gave them a good whack, and I tried to close my hands over the hanger.  This happened a few times before I was fast enough for this to work and the next day I had some dark purple fingers to show for it.  I stopped the abuse, but I had to be willing to let my hands be struck hard with a wooden hanger first.  I had choices.  Not good ones, but I had them.

My father, as I have mentioned, trafficked me sexually and took me to perform in pornographic films until I was 13.  He stopped when I refused.

I remember sitting in the car with him.  I don’t recall where we were going, but I remember the tan vinyl seats of his Volvo—the Volvo my sister still has—and I remember telling him he could do what he wanted, but I was done with what he was making me do.

Back home, he took me in the garage and strung a noose up in the rafters, brought out a stepstool, and told me to stand on it.  I did.  I let him make me hang myself.  I made a choice.

And I wonder about that.  Because I did wake up again.  I’m still alive.  I don’t know if I would have been if I’d continued to act as a sexual commodity in a world where HIV was on the rise, no one used condoms, and pregnancy, disease, or sheer despair might have robbed me of all chance at a future.

But I wonder if I knew what he would do—if I correctly guessed he would cut me down and lay me out on the bed in my room once I lost consciousness—or if I was willing to let him follow through with murdering me.  I wonder–what kind of person makes that choice?

Who am I, anyway?

Further Confessions

I should perhaps begin by saying to those people who read here because you care about me at a personal level that I love each of you.  I will not leave you.  Promise.  You may not want to read the rest of this, because it will worry you.

This entry is not for you.

It is for anyone out there in the blogosphere who has felt intense despair, who has felt overwhelmed by life and just wanted a break, and who finds the experience of being inside their own mind and their own skin unbearable.

Because I get it.

I hate myself.  This is not a value judgement.  I am not saying this makes me a better or worse human being. I am saying it like someone who hates broccoli or having their head surgically removed.  Because being myself has been nearly unrelentingly painful.  And I don’t like it.

Being inside my head hurts.  In general, I have had two choices about this: to suppress the hurting in some way, which deadens my general experience of life, or to let it hurt.  Neither has been a good choice.

That is not my fault.  It is the fault of experiences I have had no control over and the fault of being human with a full repertoire of emotions and important needs that are painful when they aren’t met.  In other words, it is the result of circumstances and realities over which I have no control and for which there are no good solutions.  I could stop being human, I suppose, but that does not sound like a good solution to me.

I suspect, actually, that nearly everyone who has lived a decently long and full life knows what I am talking about.  At some point, most of us have found ourselves feeling terrible and unbearable anguish for one reason or another–we lose an important relationship or a dream, or are betrayed and for a while it can really hurt.  If that goes on long enough, we start to get depressed and hopeless.  We question the point of all of this.  Despair sets in.  Sometimes, suicidal ideation crops up.

For some of us, that vulnerability within ourselves is hard to take.  Some people seem to be able to articulate despair and anguish without any reservation.  Good for them.  I bet they score higher on tests for psychological resilience than I do.  Keep it up.

For others–like me–it causes us terrible shame.  Why can’t we tough it out?  Why can’t we bear the pain with a little more grace, even if we can’t stop the pain itself?  Why is the pain so great I want to die?  Every day?  I mean, seriously, is it that bad?  I want to–and maybe you do, too–tell myself to toughen up and lighten up and get over it.  But I am human.  And I can’t.

And it does hurt that much.  Whatever “it” is.  It really does hurt as much as we think it does.  Whatever is in our heads is real, at least for us.  And that is who counts.

I’m just saying I understand.  And that I think it’s okay.

It’s okay to fantasize about a way out.  It’s okay to think pills are a neater way to go than a gun (they aren’t).  It’s okay to envy the person who finds comfort in a needle or a bottle.  Fantasies do not become reality unless we act.  And it’s okay to wish a break from life were possible without being dead.  Our wishes are only wishes.

Life is hard sometimes.  For everyone.  There are times when none of us are strong enough to manage it.  You aren’t alone in that, and there’s no need to feel ashamed about it.  You will, somehow–manage, I mean– but feelings are their own thing.  They will go on being whatever they are.

And for those of you who read all the way to the end of this, thank you.  You have allowed me to set down a terrible burden.

Growing up with Borderline

Photo credit: Good Houskeeping

I have a vivid memory of standing in my crib and watching my sister being shoved against the wall so hard blood came out of her head.  I can’t figure out the mechanics of the blood, or how a wall can make someone bleed without cracking the skull, but I’m sure about the blood.

When you have a parent who is extremely emotionally volatile, experiences intense and inappropriate anger, has an intolerance of others behaving like separate human beings because it makes her feel abandoned, and sometimes has complete breaks with reality, being a toddler can get pretty violent.

“With borderline personality disorder, you may have a severely distorted self-image and feel worthless and fundamentally flawed. Anger, impulsiveness and frequent mood swings may push others away, even though you may desire to have loving and lasting relationships.”  (The Mayo Clinic)

Now imagine that person with a child who says “no” every third word, has temper tantrums, says she doesn’t want something just because the parent does want it, is impulsive and into everything.  Disaster.

No wonder we periodically have news stores splashed all across our tablets and the front page of newspapers about mothers who kill their children.  Toddlers and borderlines don’t mix very well.

A ramp leading down into the Hudson River, where LaShanda Armstrong drove herself into the water along with her 4 young children.

But back to my story.  I doubt very much my older sister remembers being shoved against the wall at 3 or 4.  Most of us don’t remember being that age too well.  Clear narrative memories for most people are only just beginning around then.  I’m fortunate, perhaps, and unusual in that I do remember events from very, very early in my life.  But whether we remember them or not, what happens to us as toddlers and pre-school age children profoundly affects us.

It seems to me if you have a parent with borderline personality disorder, the “terrible twos” can go one of two ways.  You can suppress your normal development and remain enmeshed with your parent long after it would have been healthy for you to start the process of individuation, or you can proceed with normal development but tolerate the intense, negative emotional reactions of your parent.

Not all borderlines are violent with their children–at least that’s what I’ve been told.  But at a very minimum an unhappy person with borderline personality disorder will cry a lot, punish offending loved ones with the silent treatment, or threaten to self-harm–which is usually just as frightening to children as being harmed themselves.

What occurred to me this morning is that my sister responded to her developmental crisis by care-taking and sacrificing her psychological development.  When mommy got mad, my sister was sorry, gave hugs, cried and made up.  I ran.  I knew I was expected to do what my sister did and help mommy feel better, but I couldn’t do it.  I ran, and I kept running really, until I got to where I am now.  Which is geographically not so far, but psychologically the other side of the moon.

When I was a bit older–at 2 and a half or so–I actually did save my mother’s life.  When my mother climbed into the bathtub and slit her wrists, I went next door and got our neighbor.  The neighbor made a call.  Paramedics came, and my mom was hospitalized for 2 or 3 weeks.

I live with the knowledge that, in my mother’s mind, that was the wrong response.  I wasn’t supposed to get help.  I was supposed to fix her myself, although I was barely out of diapers and was just figuring out how to read.

That is often what borderlines want.  They want their loved ones to jump in and do the fixing themselves–not call in the professionals.  I’m sure the reasons for this are complex, among them that they don’t actually want to get better, and “fixing” doesn’t usually involve any real change.

I want to tie one more thread in with this.  I’ve been in therapy on and off for a long time–I’m sure you can see why–and some of this was couples therapy with a partner I now think was also borderline although of a slightly different make-up (less volatile, more self-absorbed).  A theme I recall is that we tend to fall back on the strategies that worked for us as children.

Like the Cowboy Junkies said, “I’ve heard a man in a crisis/Falls back on what he knows best/A murderer to murder a thief to theft.”

That’s true.  If we ran in a crisis, we will tend to keep running.  If we allowed ourselves to become enmeshed, we will do that.  I ran for help.

Not bad.

References:

Child in Crib. (2010, May24).  From “Baby Cribs: Safety Do’s and Don’ts.”  http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/cm/goodhousekeeping/images/child-in-crib.jpg

Lyrics Time.  (2012).  Cowboy Junkies Lyrics.  “Firs Recollection.”  Retrieved from:   http://www.lyricstime.com/cowboy-junkies-first-recollection-lyrics.html

Mayo Clinic. (2012).  Borderline Personality Disorder.  Retrieved from:http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/borderline-personality-disorder/DS00442

Shaw, Amir.  (2011, April 14).  Mother Drowns 3 Children, Self; 4th Child Flees.  RollingOut.Com: Digital Urban Voice.  Retrieved from: http://rollingout.com/politics/black-mother-drowns-3-children-self-4th-child-flees/

Because It’s so Damn Hard

It’s Thursday, and I feel I have some answers.

In my last post, I had some questions for myself.  Among them, why I’m so frequently such a disappointment to myself and seem to fall short of not only what I’d like to be able to do but sometimes what other people would like me to be able to do as well.

The answer, I realize, is astonishingly simple: Because it’s so damn hard.  Not just one thing in my life, but nearly everything.

I teach, for example, in a low-performing, high-poverty school run by psychopathic idiots.  Seriously.  I don’t think there is anyone in the district with any amount of power who doesn’t have a diagnosable personality disorder.  Anyone who doesn’t is unlikely to last long.

This may be the case more now than in the past, but has probably been the case to at least some extent for more than a decade. In other words, the whole time my students have been in school.  So on top of the usual problems in a high poverty school, and on top of any family problems at home, the kids have to deal with school leaders who have inappropriate or poor psychological boundaries and the propensity for verbal abuse and inconsistent behavior.  It doesn’t help.

So my job is really, really hard.  Any teaching job is hard if you do it right.  Teaching in that environment is unbelievably hard.  And it’s not that I don’t feel I can manage it.  I cope.  It’s just that I can’t always do my job well.  There is simply too much to do and too many challenges to overcome in each 24 hour period.  Some things I just screw up.

Also, there’s this thing I’m trying to do in my head so that things can get kind of okay in there.  That’s hard.  Trauma is hard to deal with.  It’s really hard to do at the intensity and pace I’m trying to do it at and have been for about two years.  (I’m not getting any younger, and I am fed up with this.)  So, I don’t always do that well either.  Or, I take on too much to really be able to handle, and something else in my life suffers because my head has gone cock-eyed again.

This may be a lesson for everyone else out there dealing with something really and truly difficult–a nasty divorce, bereavement, recovery from drug addiction.  Take it on, that tough issue, full throttle if you need to.  Some things can’t be dealt with in any other way.  But expect less of yourself somewhere else.  You aren’t Wonder Woman.  You will not be able do it all.  Expect to screw up, and try to screw up where it counts less.

The other lesson in this may be the greater the challenge you take on, the more often you should expect to fail at it and everything else.  Don’t let this disturb you.  Just keep going.  You’ll get there.

At least I think so.

Myself

So, this is for those of you who anxiously await my next postings (all two of you), especially when I get all personal and start talking about how much of the day I’ve spent crying in a fetal position.  (Well, not really, since I generally just sit in a chair to cry.  Fetal positions make me sleepy.)  Because I know how much everybody out there on the inter-web must love that.

The view from my window during the most recent solar eclipse.

I had, actually, a terrible day, where many things did not go right.  Really didn’t go right.  Almost to the point of disaster.  And I was puzzling over why that is, and also why it is I am so often a disappointment to myself, and what it means about me that I am.

And I just kind of got this feeling of a nasty kind of hatred all balled up inside in the pit of my stomach.  And I realized where some of this is coming from–the disappointment, and the self-hatred, and the struggle against a lack of worth.  It comes down to having been hated.  This evening, as the cat snuggles into the covers and a cool breeze floats into the nicely autumn air, I am remembering having been hated.  Having my head smashed against things, screamed at, thrown across a room.

That’s what it means to be hated.  It’s terrible.  It really is.

But at the same time I also understand that that is me. I am the one who lived through that.  And I am the one who feels so terrible, now, remembering it.  I’d rather be that person no matter how much it hurts.  The battle every day is for myself.

Did I win?  Can I?