Why else the hurt continues

Yesterday, I speculated that patterns of attachment may account for at least some of the tendency abused children have to maintain harmful relationships in adulthood. Ytorn clothesou can’t escape abuse from a caretaker, I thought. You are forced to make  the best of things, to maintain feelings of closeness and to solicit whatever nurturing you can from the person who is harming you. And so that becomes a reflexive response to the rents in a relationship that harm leads to. You have been forced to mend things, and you become an excellent mender, even of relationships that would be better left torn to shreds.

But I think there are most likely several other reasons also. And, among them, the power of ideas. Specifically, attempts to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of conflicting ideas.

Because what I hear, if I talk to someone about an ongoing harmful relationship is, “But he’s a good person,” or “But she doesn’t really mean it,” And I also hear, “He loves me. She cares.”

He clearly has some anger problems, however.
He clearly has some anger problems, however.

As if no one can both care about you and threaten your well-being to the extent that you need to escape them. No one can both be a decent person and cause harm to others. These two ideas must be mutually exclusive, and noting the harm and the care or other indications of a more benevolent nature creates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that is most often resolved via denial.

In contrast, I think it’s perfectly possible for both of these ideas to exist in the same person. On the one hand, everyone has good qualities. The BTK killer was a good father and good husband. His only problem–and not a small one–was that he tortured and killed other people in his spare time. My dad was a regular church goer. He didn’t cheat on his taxes. He was scrupulously careful in his work.

Just as we all have our faults, we also all have our strengths.

And, on the other hand, most of us harm others when our own abilities to manage ourselves and our own lives become excessively strained, and what leads to harm is usually some facet of human nature that has gotten out of control. All of us want to punish other people when we feel angry. We become self-absorbed when our needs and desires become too intense. And we lose our ability to feel empathy when we are in pain. Even your own dog will bite you if he’s hurting enough.

This doesn’t justify harm. I’m not saying that. I’m simply saying that these two things are often true simultaneously. Someone can harm others without being a monster, and often harm arises out of a diminished ability to calm oneself, manage life, or exert self-control rather than because of a global lack of concern for others–although that’s also possible.

Staub#2_0But if you see these two ideas as incompatible–harm and a basic decency of character–then making sense of one’s own victimization by a trusted other becomes extremely difficult. Further, being unable to resolve the contradiction can keep you stuck in something you shouldn’t be in because you can’t sort out what to do.

My own way of resolving the apparent contradiction was to come to believe that harmful behaviour harms everyone and not just the victim. So, while distancing oneself from a person who’s harming you–or ending the relationship altogether–may cause some temporary pain, the negative effects of harming someone else–especially a loved one–leads to greater long-term damage to the perpetrator than the temporary sting of loss.

As Ervin Staub contents,harm falls on a continuum, and harm committed unchecked often leads to greater harm in the future. This occurs in part because harm damages the perpetrator’s conscience–as they tend to justify their actions in order to manage their guilty feelings. So this ends up blurring the line between right and wrong. Even if morality was clear at one point, it becomes less clear over time. And it also impairs the perpetrator’s capacity for empathy, because harming others causes empathic distress. And avoiding this distress requires a denial or minimization of the feelings of the the victim.

So even if the abusive behaviour begins as nothing more than a loss of control, and an inability to rein in those basic human capacities to want to punish others or to over-aggressively defend oneself from threats, it can end up becoming engrained and constitutional, so that by middle-age, violence has become a way of life.

At the same time, I know that most perpetrators continue to abuse someone else even after the first victim has fled. But that’s not my headache, is it? I can’t be responsible for what people do when I’m not even there.

As a child, I didn’t have other choices. I could neither flee nor effectively assert my own rights. But as an adult I can, and it’s also my responsibility to do so.  And maybe that’s just a fancy way of blaming the victim, but I don’t think so. I’m just saying that perpetrators are as complex as the rest of us, and I’m also saying it can be kinder to leave.


Just regulating

Fortunately, I have not taken it this far
Fortunately, I have not taken it this far

I’m having one of those days.

Last night, I had an on-line meeting to attend for the Country X job, but since this is a developing nation and nothing ever works when you really want it to, I was never really able to access the meeting. And then it was over. Naturally, at that point, I was able to login and access the broadband network I am using without any problem. That’s just how things go.

Then I tripped over a pipe on my walk this morning. Breakfast was cold. The puppy who lives across the street has suddenly taken it into his head to start tearing my clothes (and succeeded). So now I need to mend my clothes.

I’m annoyed with all of that. I’m annoyed with myself. Why does it take me so long to get ready in the mornings? What is it with my compulsion to wear things that take time to locate and put on, like necklaces and bangles, eye make-up, even bindi? Can’t I just wash and go? But, no, I have to do all these annoying “lady things” as Nandhini calls them.

And I’m tired, because I persist in waking up at 5:30 in the morning for no discernible reason, but the meeting that I couldn’t attend kept me up until 11.

So I don’t even have my usual patience with life.

Then I realized it’s Halloween. The worst day ever invented.

Photo credit: Prashant Pardeshi
Photo credit: Prashant Pardeshi

There are few reminders of it here. There’s a party shop on the corner that has orange cobwebs and masks hanging in the window. Given that Diwali is Sunday, and that is the biggest party around, I’m not sure why they are bothering. But maybe they feel the Diwali market is already saturated, and it’s old-hat anyway, and it’s time to borrow a different holiday.

And there are also references to Halloween on here and in the Facebook updates from my friends. So I can’t entirely forget.

That’s when I remember the somatic marker hypothesis and the ventromedial cortex, and I can tell you I’m nothing less than relieved.

“The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a repository of dispositionally recorded linkages between factual knowledge and bioregulatory states. Structures in ventromedial prefrontal cortex provide the substrate for learning an association between certain classes of complex situation, on the one hand, and the type of bioregulatory state (including emotional state) usually associated with that class of situation in past individual experience.”  Bechara, et al. Emotion, decision making and the orbitofrontal cortex.

This is nothing more complicated than an association between a certain class of complex situation and a bioregulatory state. When I was abused on Halloween, and I was abused especially severely on that occasion, I was angry. So, given that it is Halloween again, I also feel angry.

At some point, this would have been a kind of a time-saver, like knowing your times tables by heart so that you don’t have to add 8 9 times in order to get 72—you just know that’s what it is. It would have allowed me to skip the step of assessing every Halloween anew–I would have just known. Anger was the appropriate response last Halloween. it probably is the appropriate response to this one as well.

So, I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to look deeply into myself to determine what I’m really angry about. I don’t need to try to work through anything. I do know what this is about, what I have felt and thought in the past about this, and what I think and feel now.

I just need to regulate.

Playing with an idea: attachment

last a lifetimeAdults who were abused as children frequently find themselves in other harmful relationships. That is not any secret or anything new either. And there are also various ideas out there about why this happened: lack of self-esteem, repetition compulsion, or simply that harmful relationships have become more comfortable.

I’m not really satisfied with any of these as explanations. They lack a certain solidity to their reasoning. I have never once mistreated anyone just because they didn’t think much of themselves. Why should anyone mistreat me because of the problems I’m having with myself? And we may be a bit dysfunctional, but we aren’t totally mad. Who would wish abuse on themselves?

Still, I know self-harm is not uncommon among survivors. I’ve done it myself. But why the need to outsource our own self-hatred? Most of us can handle this just fine on our own. There is no need to involve anyone else.

So, I’m after a new explanation. And I think I’ve got one. Let me know what you think.

cycle of violenceChild abuse necessarily means that someone you are close to, someone you are dependent on not only for warmth but for survival, is harming you. And so the way you respond to that harm will necessarily be different than how you might respond to harm from a stranger, or from someone you don’t know as well.

First of all, you cannot flee. You especially cannot flee into the arms of a protective and comforting parent. Neither can you afford to be too aggressive in most cases: standing up for yourself is usually out of the question. Instead, you need to find a way to obtain comfort and protection from that very same person who is harming you.

Although the abusive parent is a frightening figure for the child, those are the arms you very often end up fleeing into. So I think perhaps you continue to do that.

In the beginnings of relationships, there is often little conflict. Both parties are on their best behaviour, and the bliss of new love often gives everyone enough of whatever they need to push long-standing problems into the background. So, it’s not hard to form an attachment to someone who has significant problems so long as you aren’t attuned to the small indications of danger.

Then once the problems begin, you respond to them in the same way you always have–not because you want this kind of thing, but because that has been the only reasonable option for so long. That response isn’t to flee. It isn’t to distance yourself from the relationship.  And it isn’t to establish ground rules or to otherwise assertively defend your own rights. If you do respond that way in the moment, the tendency later on is to relent and to feel that you were wrong to be so assertive–or to flee.

And what you do instead is to seek out the arms of the person harming you, just as you had no other choice but to do as a child.

In contrast, both assertiveness and retreat tend to drive away those interested in having power over others in relationships. Flight renders you out of reach and dull besides. Assertive behaviour is maddening. So rather than ending up in a nine-year mess–as I did–the whole thing collapses of its own weight in a matter of weeks or even days.

So maybe that’s a compulsion to repeat. You could say it is. But that implies an interest in the long-term outcome, which is further relational harm. And I don’t think that’s a goal. I think it’s really about the cage in your mind, the limitations of reality you grew up with, and learned set of facts, emotions, and behaviours that take hold of you while you are in a hot state of feeling afraid or hurt or, later on, guilty.

Harm typically damages feelings of attachment. Betrayal, as we all know, is often a death knell to love. But survivors of childhood abuse have been betrayed all their lives. They are able to maintain a bond in spite of it: they have been infinitely resourceful, and they know how to patch things up regardless of how frayed at the edges the relationship has become.

And so the harm continues.

More words

wordsSometimes, the obvious takes a while to register.

Yesterday, I felt something like hopelessness about language, about the entire realm of communication. As a writer–which I am these days if you define someone in terms of what what they do with their time–this is rather alarming.

And it also made me sad.

This morning, when I woke up at 5:30 a.m.–as I still seem to–it occurred to me that this had something to do with the past and with my childhood and that, as a child, I had felt this way nearly all the time. My mother didn’t make any sense, my father was a psychopath, and I wasn’t supposed to talk to or trust anyone outside our small religious circle. This wasn’t enforced. I was just brainwashed into expecting a lack of interest. That left only my sister, and she was never all that reliable.

So you can see where a sense of the futility about words might have come from.

There are times when I have these little bits of insight when I find what comes crashing over me along with it are all the things I’ve ever been told I might feel instead, or the sense I might have made out of it and didn’t. In other words, the interpretations I should make.

I should be afraid to speak. I should be worried about what someone else might think about what I have to say. And to some extent I am afraid. I am afraid to speak of the worst kinds of abuses. They make me choke up in a way–it feels like I’m strangling to death–and I’ve come to associate that with the act of speaking itself, as if speaking could kill me.

Until the countries that Joseph Kony has taken refuge in have viable systems of governments, police forces, and armies, I doubt the work of Invisible Children will make much difference. But what would help are services specifically devised to support those children who do escape.
Until the countries that Joseph Kony has taken refuge in are more stable I doubt the work of Invisible Children will make much difference. But what would help are services specifically devised to support those children who do escape.

But that isn’t really the worst problem, and it isn’t the most intense feeling I have about language. The worst problem is that it seems that there is no point. And that is both true and not true.

Words do, in fact, make us feel better. They allow us to access support. Sometimes, they even allow us to communicate about problems and plan for solution.

And there is a lot of emphasis on this in our world. People talk about “raising awareness” as if that alone will take care of things. It doesn’t, in fact. Due to the Kony 2012 campaign, I am perfectly well aware of the abuses of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, but I remain entirely unenlightened about what to do about it. The problem is just so complex.

But sometimes awareness is a start. Remember the introduction of the “vampire cough?” I must have watched at least three public service announcement a day telling me to cough and sneeze into my shirt, my elbow, or my sleeve. And now that is what middle-class Americans do.  (Poor Americans still don’t. Evidently, they don’t watch enough TV.) Bringing awareness helped.

No one in India does. Most Indians don’t even cover their mouths, which is probably why, despite the sturdiness of my digestive tract, I get every respiratory infection that floats my way when I’m here.

No awareness.

Bringing awareness is effective if the problem is a simple enough that most people can understand it without too much difficulty and for which there is a clear course of action. In other words, it’s great for teaching basic hygiene. Not so great for addressing the problem of a cult leader who uses child soldiers to defend himself in a country dominated by war lords and riddled with corruption.

One of the hardest aspects of severe abuse is the way it makes everyone seem powerless. Not only was I powerless to save myself, but everyone else seemed to be equally powerless to intervene or protect myself. But, like the problem of Joseph Kony, we aren’t powerless against severe forms of child abuse and exploitation. It’s just that it’s a difficult problem, and it takes time and effort to solve. It’s not that “raising awareness” is really ineffective, or that our words about this are truly useless. It’s that we need so many of them.

We need so many words to try to describe the problem, and more words to try to explain the problem, and then more again to consider and choose solutions.

We need more words–not less.


quiet americanI used to be a big fan of Graham Greene. I read everything the library had of his. I called for titles languishing unread in closed stacks in the basement. Then it started to seem that he didn’t really understand anyone and that all of his books were the same. So I stopped.

But something from one of them returns to me today: it’s a word–an idea–from The Quiet American.

If you haven’t read it, I’ll tell you what I remember, which is that it’s about two people caught in the midst of a revolution somewhere far from their home countries. Maybe Bangkok, and the main characters are English. I could have this entirely wrong, but that’s what I remember.

And while this revolution is going on–it’s just breaking out, in fact–these two characters strive to become uninvolved. And they word they use for this is the French word: engage. (You have to imagine an accent on that final e. I don’t know how to do it in WordPress.) They keep saying, but we are not engage. As if you can distance yourself from a revolution and that will protect you. As if that’s possible.

And I feel that way. I feel I would like to be nonengage. With angry Aunty, I strove for Medium Chill. And here, at the guesthouse, with it’s own set of dramas, I want to remain uninvolved. But I am here, and like the revolution, there’s no avoiding engagement.

I didn’t feel like going out for lunch today. I guess I was feeling rather low still from the morning, and it made me not want to go out. More particularly, it made nothing feel worth going out for. My stomach was hungry, but my brain hadn’t caught on.

tiffinSo Priya made me scrambled eggs. And then her father didn’t eat everything from his lunch–they order out every day for everything. They aren’t rich. They can’t afford it. But they don’t have any sense. And the grandmother used to do all the cooking, so after her passing, cooking feels like nothing more than another way to self-inflict pain. So, Uncle #2 gets a dabba, and he only wanted one of the dishes. The rest was going to be wasted. So she piled that on as well.

And when I had finished, Priya brought cake out that she and Sohail had bought the night before. I was to eat that also, although it hadn’t been bought with me in mind.

But I don’t want to become engage. I want to maintain a distance. I want to remain uninvolved.

The fact of the matter–what I suspect at least–is that you can’t. If you want to live in the world, you must be involved in it. And the only question is how.

The end of words

wordsI don’t want to write today, although that is the bulk of what I do at the moment. If I didn’t write, in fact, I don’t know what else I would do with my time. I’d be terribly bored.

But I feel sometimes that words are the enemy, and that they are both harmful and inadequate. If you have ever said something you later regret, then you’ll know what I mean. Except this is only more so. It is a regret about having ever said anything to anyone, as if every word I have ever spoken has been a mistake.

Although it’s a general sense, I’m sure this is connected to something in particular: perhaps to a belief that if I’d said something different things might have also gone differently. So, I think I must have believed at some point that it mattered what I said, and that I had something wrong.

There is another possibility, however, and that is that nothing that I ever said as a child ever mattered, and so I’m more angry at having tried and failed than anything else.

And so this is another kind of mourning–a mourning for a loss of effectiveness, perhaps, and for a loss of a place in the world, because that is a part of what words give us. They allow us to define for ourselves who and what we are as well as communicate that to others.


This sense about words is one of sadness.

The guesthouse: cast of characters

The room.
The room.

It is time for a guesthouse post.

I have now been here for four days. I think I am getting a sense for things.

Let me begin by saying that it is every bit as dysfunctional an environment as Nandhini’s house with her angry-Aunty-mother (her mother, my aunty) and her vaguely paranoid delusional father. You will be relieved to know this, I’m sure. Too much mental health and I could crack.

The place is run by an elderly man and his daughter. Let’s call the daughter Priya and the father Uncle #2–Nandhini’s father remaining Uncle #1. I actually do not know Uncle #2’s name. So you are as much enlightened as I am.

There used to be a grandmother as well, but she passed away a few months ago. Everyone is quite broken up about this still, and there is a bit of a cloud over the house as a result.

There are also two maids that come to clean. One of them does the common areas or at least goes through the motions of doing so–her cleaning is decidedly substandard in my view. This one is a tiny one–about half of me, I’d say, and I am not a large person. Childhood malnourishment comes to mind when I see her, and she generally cuts a rather tragic figure. Also, she only comes about every second day. Something about her slum being destroyed. More tragedy.

Her name, in fact, means tears although it may mean something else in her language which, given the amount of movement in and out of this are, could be anything.  We shall instead call her Ingur, although it is nothing like her name and probably has an entirely different meaning and community connotation.

The other maid cleans my room and does my laundry. She is middle-aged, overweight, and rather jolly. She is quite adequate in her work and quite regular in her timings, although she arrives 20 minutes late. But that’s to be expected. In other words, she’s in every way the opposite of Ingur. We shall call her Anjali.

It’s unclear what she does beyond that. Priya and Anjali are also friends–a blurring of relationships I don’t understand and seems almost unheard of here. But maybe there continue to be many things I haven’t seen. Today, they are making something or other with dried fish. So earlier it smelled like the seaside, and later the chili made everyone sneeze.

So that is the cast of characters. Except not really. As I said, this is a guesthouse, and Priya and Uncle #2 make their living taking in paying guests. The above are only the regulars. Then there are those of us with walkon parts, or who will only play a part in a few episodes and not the full serial.

In fact, the guesthouse is full now. All the rooms are rented. Upstairs, are two Indian boys from places I can’t recall. Nagpur, possible. Or Nasik. Or some other N city. They’ve gone home for Diwali, which is Sunday, and will return who knows when. I have seen them once. I don’t think I could pick them out of a line-up if I had to. I don’t know their names.

The view from my backporch. Except it's afternoon and very bright, so you can't actually see anything.
The view from my backporch. Except it’s afternoon and very bright, so you can’t actually see anything.

And then there is Soheil–which is not his real name either. Soheil is or was Priya’s boyfriend, as well as a paying guest in the house. Evidently, no one has cautioned Priya about the hazards of mixing business and pleasure, and she now has a first-rate mess on her hands.

Soheil is epileptic, and Priya blames everything on this. But epilepsy seems to be the least of Soheil’s problems. The real problem is that he is paranoid and is in the early stages of delusion. And he’s particularly paranoid about Priya, and it especially leads to rage regarding Priya. And this leads to rage. He hasn’t hit Priya, and probably he can’t–the dog will bite him. But he seems the type.

Yesterday, he went out of the house and then came in again a few minutes later. We were all sitting in the livingroom: Uncle #2, Anjali, Priya, and me.  So he had to walk past us going out and then coming in again. He didn’t say anything.  What was troubling him I have no idea. But when he had gotten up to his room, we could hear the sound of something breaking–a cup it turned out. Something Priya had given him.

His brother says he’ll come for him on the fourth. But let’s see.