Unhappiness

I am not really recovered from coming back from C’s village. Transitions can be hard for me. Losses can be hard. I am not particularly surprised that I don’t feel okay, but I am surprised maybe that it’s going on for so long. I can’t seem to return to a balanced place.

One thing that has been on my mind lately is how much being around other people destroys my enjoyment of life. I don’t know why this should be. It may be a misperception, but it seems to me that whenever I begin to enter into a calm place or I begin to feel some enjoyment of life, someone comes along and makes it impossible to continue to do it. This is not only children–who might be expected to push boundaries. It is also sometimes adults. My general experience of human beings is that I can expect continual conflict, and that being around people means a total loss of pleasure in life.

Yesterday, I was reading something particularly interesting and it was an online article, so Facebook was open mainly because I still have this habit of being available to C although she no longer turns to me in times of stress. So an acquaintance who runs the post office around here wanted me to tell my female friend to accept his friend request. He met her briefly, they exchanged pleasantries. I don’t think she probably much remembers him.

Well, I wasn’t going to do that. It’s up to her who she accepts and who she doesn’t, and I suspect he cheats on his wife. I said she is rarely online, which is true, and she may not have noticed his request. I suggested he may want to wait until she is less busy–she’s teaching in a reading program right now.

Then he asked how I contact her. I said by phone and messenger, but that we don’t have a lot of contact, which is also true. So he wanted her phone number. I suggested she might feel angry if I gave out her phone number. He said she shouldn’t. I said most people do feel angry if someone gives out their phone number without permission.

By this point I had completely lost my concentration on my reading and my mood as well. I had provided him with all of these opportunities to bow out of his request gracefully, but it was as if he couldn’t hear “no” until it came in this fairly direct way.

Why do people do this? The answer, I am sure, is that they don’t realize a polite refusal is nonetheless a refusal. Other people in their experience must acquiesce in order to maintain the politeness. But I find many people are like this. You set a boundary, and you have to keep setting it. Nothing changes, except you find them unpleasant to be around.

Some of this is also the kids, I know. They don’t know how to have relationships. They struggle with self-control. They haven’t matured developmentally enough to consider other people. It’s not their fault, but sometimes I feel such despair.

In the village, I went for a walk with the Girl. I couldn’t leave her out, but I sort of knew if the Girl is with me, this will be a joyless walk. She complained about how hot it was (then why did you come?). She commented in an alarmed way at some skin peeling off the ends of her fingers. Now, I don’t have any idea why this happens. It does happen, but I don’t know why or what to do about it. When it happens to me, time passes and it goes away. I just agreed with her: indeed, the skin on your fingers is peeling.

I find it hard to relate to her constant distress. I can’t really keep my attention on it. Country Xers seem capable of commenting on the heat several dozen times a day, but I can’t really maintain an interest in weather.

I know this has to do with how I cope with distress–just move on. No one can change the heat, so maybe we should o something pleasant which distracts us from it. (Of course, it’s also difficult for me to relate to, as it is considerably cooler here than Los Angeles in the summertime.)

Anyway, I wondered why the Girl didn’t realize that while she finds her anxiety fascinating, other people do not. If she wants to have people around, she needs to find some kind of common ground with them. But people don’t.

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Exploitation

C is supposed to come today.

I felt happy about this and now I don’t. I try to maintain curiosity about what is going on in my mind, and to see it as a filter for reality. A different filter would make reality seem different. So I try to maintain this awareness that my mind exists. It is not directly reality entering my brain.

The reason I don’t feel happy is that I began to think she does not actually want to see me. She needs to use my laptop for a project she needs to do over vacation, which may actually be true. I began to mentally prepare myself to feel like an object and to feel exploited.

People who use dismissive strategies don’t find as much reward in relationships. They have their own agendas and find reward in activities and accomplishments, but not human beings. Human beings are either a means to an end or an impediment to their activities. The more pronounced the use of dismissive strategies, the more this will be true.

C alternates between dismissive and anxious strategies. It’s possible to do this. People who alternate between very extreme strategies are considered to be psychopathic, but ordinary people use low-numbered strategies and manage to get through life without robbing banks or murdering people.

It’s completely possible for C to see me as only a laptop provider, and not a full-fledged human being. It’s hurtful when people do this.

I once saw a therapist who told me about another client whose wife was very dramatic and expressed her feelings in frightening ways. He said as his client’s self-esteem improved, he was less upset by this, and would tell his wife he would come back later, when she was calmer.

I now think his wife used very anxious strategies to maintain the relationship: she exaggerated her emotions to maintain the attention of her partner. Her husband, in contrast, increased his use of dismissive strategies by ignoring her. The extreme nature of their use of protective strategies increased and became more entrenched rather than improved over time. But the husband lost awareness of his emotions, and forgot that having someone yell and throw things is upsetting and confusing. He was not safer or more supported, but he stopped complaining about it, and so our therapist saw it as success.

It’s not my goal to stop feeling hurt. Instead, it’s my goal to think in a way that allows for uncertainty and doubt and reflects more sources of information.

I think there was a point in my life when I dd not see minds existing as minds. There were distortions in my thinking and by this I don’t mean there were particular thoughts I tended to revert to: that’s possible, but it’s not what I mean.

I mean there may have been a point when I did not see minds as existing as minds: thoughts were reality, and so I could not tolerate thoughts, because to me they seemed real.

In other words, in the past I might have had the thought that I am only a laptop provider and then felt compelled to ensure I wasn’t one, because if someone has that thought about me, then that is who I am.

I have one particularly clear memory of an incident with my ex-wife–most experiences with her are not clear, but this one is. I often felt upset and did not know why or what had happened to lead up to this.  But this one I remember very vividly.

I recall helping her with a sewing project. She was making cat toys stuffed with catnip. She sewed the edges with the sewing machine, and I sewed up the little hole left in order to stuff them by hand. When I finished with this, she was somehow very dismissive about it, and I felt exploited. I tore out the stitches that I had made, because I never wanted to be anyone’s slave again. I would rather not have relationships at all than be exploited.

In therapy, there was no discussion of this. The therapist assumed my actions were meant to communicate with my partner and that I was behaving vindictively. It’s not that I didn’t try to get across what I thought and felt, but there was not sufficient space in what he believed to accommodate my experiences. He couldn’t grasp that I assumed my actions did not communicate to my partner. Whether they did or not, I don’t know, but I grew up in a world so unresponsive it was very easy for me to revert to a presumption that what I did would not matter one way or another to anyone other than myself. He assumed my behaviour was covertly aggressive, and I was being deceptive about this, because i did not want to acknowledge the aggressive nature of my actions. It did not cross his mind that I assumed she did not care. I did not expect any reaction to my tearing out the stitches and it seems to me, if I remember right, that I was correct in my expectation and there was not one. I lived in a world where I was my only audience and my actions communicated only to myself.

The confusion was about the nature of reality: I felt I could change a perception only by changing reality. I could change the feeling of being exploited only by undoing te exploitation.

Unsteady

Things are not very stable at home at the moment.

The Girl tends to express a lot of anger, some of it overtly, but much of it covertly. I mentioned her punching animals in the nose. She reports her own dog bit her. Well, I wonder why….

Her main solution to this is to move on to someone else. I won’t give her her own way, and she wants to go home again. So yesterday, she went home to find her mother drunk, fought with her mother, and went to stay with her brother instead.

This would all be fine, except that she said hurtful things to The Boy, which I had shared with her and evidently should not have, because her motive for repeating it was to wound him.

So the Boy came home, but in a guarded state. This was alright, except that the anxiety overwhelmed him and by evening he felt like running away. I kind of get how the pressure builds up, because it happens to me too. So in the evening when he asked to stay overnight with his friend, I let him. It’s Friday night, I am not sure how much kids are normally allowed to stay overnight with their friends, but a sleepover sounds ok to me.

After he left, I realized he had stolen money from me. I went to look for him, and he was not at his friend’s house. I don’t know where he is or what his plan actually had been.

The Girl is still at her brother’s house, which is fine. I suppose in a few days, she will get angry at him too and want to come back. I don’t know how to help her with her anger exactly. If I had an idea, I would try it. It doesn’t bode well for her future, but I don’t really know what to do. You cannot rage at people to get your way, and if you use abandonment to exact revenge on people (which is what she is trying to do), then generally they lose interest in you. It doesn’t keep working.

At some point, you have to accept the boundaries other people set for you, and learn to work within them. You cannot continually ramp up aggression and live any kind of decent life.

Meanwhile, I am home alone and starting on a project of my own. I am trying to write out a memoir kind of thing about my traumatic past while weaving in what is happening in the present–somewhat like my blog, but more coherent. It’s possible it may turn out to be readable, but I also think writing will help me to make sense of it more deeply.

It’s quite difficult, to put it mildly, and yesterday in the middle it seems that I switched. I left a message for C’s dad that I loved him. I came back from going to the bathroom and saw that I had done this. I don’t know how it happened–if I had simply typed into the wrong window (I tell C I love her all the time) or if some part of me couldn’t hold in the impulse anymore.

It is something I periodically want to say to him. I feel it. But for adult men and women who are not related, I suspect, “I love you” is always romantic, and that isn’t what I am trying to say. My brain is a confusing place, and it’s not very clear to me what I do feel.

It’s possible I was writing, and felt overwhelmed, and I just wanted to reach out. That expectation that there will be a reward on the other end of reaching out does feel like love. There is this gratitude you feel in anticipation of receiving support.

Anyway, he came back online later and said, “I love you too.” Life moved on.

Anger

I am having an especially bad morning. I am not sure why exactly. I feel a bit sick–just achy and sinusy. Nothing much. But sometimes that sets something off, and it becomes hard to cope

I was reading the dismissive types have more passive-aggressive anger. I haven’t found that to be the case. The Girl is very anxious in her attachment style. She expresses a lot of anger both directly and indirectly. She plays in ways that hurt other people or animals. The Boy is hurtful too, but his is about power. He wants to be better than others so that no one can hurt him and he can be safe. She wants revenge. I don’t know why it feels different to me or why I see those recurring motivations in them, but I do.

I think anxiously attached people are more likely to be angry in any form. The form it takes depends on your family’s beliefs about anger, who can express it and how. There is a different underlying belief which supports the anger, because we feel angry when it seems as though we may win in a conflict. We feel we can win when right is on our side. So anxiously attached people feel hurt, but because they have sometimes been nurtured, it seems to them as though the nurturing ought to be there: it’s right and proper for them to be nurtured.

A dismissive person does not expect to be nurtured. They don’t try to receive nurturing or really even to communicate much, because there is no hope of it. So dismissive people feel much more sadness than anger in the same situations.

That’s my opinion.

What dismissive people do expect is to be able to take care of themselves and pursue their own interests. They may also have an expectation that people are likely to interfere with this, and see others as an impediment to pursuing their goals or hobbies. They may express a lot of impatience with someone who demands their attention or wants comfort when they are busy trying to get some reward and satisfaction from their activities. Those are the times when dismissive/avoidant people feel angry.

The times when C was very angry with me I think were times like these. She had goals and plans which I seemed to be interfering with or might be expected to interfere with–a primary goal was to avoid activating attachment anxiety so that her trauma would not assert itself. I certainly interfered with that. I was exacerbating the anxiety so it was likely to overcome her self-control and cause her to reach out, which would activate her implicit memories of how her efforts to be nurtured have played out in the past.

Trauma mama

It is exam time. Country X has a very strong exam culture. Children from pre-primary on up have twice yearly exams. These count for increasingly more of their marks as they go up. In fourth grade, which I teach, the exam is half the mark at midterm and 2/3 at the end of the year (overall, 3/5 of the mark).

The odd thing about this is that Country Xers have no concept of the unit or unit planning, although their textbooks are arranged in units. They do not routinely give unit tests or plan culminating activities at the end of units. I suggested that backwards design is intended to be a part of unit plans and was met with blank stares. Teachers give tests according to whim. Some teachers only give 1 or 2 tests a year. We now have a cycle of tests on Saturday, so that each of the subject teachers must give a test every 5 weeks, whether it is needed or not.

Anyway, so I spent yesterday morning monitoring about 150 4th and 5th graders sitting in an echoing multi-purpose hall while they took an exam. It was an unpleasant and frustrating experience, as it often is.

Nothing about it was organized or coordinated in terms of the human beings involved–there were 3 monitors and 3 subject teacher. We train the student to ask permission to enter a room, which means you have students standing in the doorway asking loudly, “May I come in?” whenever they need to return to the classroom (and students you have given permission to go to the toilet asking whether they can leave the classroom), but if no teachers are present, they walk on in. It’s one of the stranger things about the culture (for me).

So 150 students entered the exam hall unattended, because someone had left it unlocked. They have to be checked for cheat sheets beforehand, because Country X students cheat as much as you let them. While I was checking, the math teacher began to give instructions to his students at a deafening volume in the National Language. This meant students as a group were not first given any instructions generally about the exam–there was a page to attach to the front. They needed to be reminded to raise their hands silently if they needed something rather than calling out or leaving their seats.

It also meant when the children asked me what he said later, I had no idea. I find it frustrating that whenever there are ordinary matters to talk to the children about, the teachers who are meant to teach in English lapse back into the National Language. How is it they can understand the complexities of the subject in English but they can’t understand “turn to page 7 and look at question 14”?

In the long run, it means students do not learn what we call “mortar words” in language development, which are the vocabulary words common to all subjects. They learn the specialized vocabulary of their discipline, but not things like “open” or “draw.”

In the short run, it means I am left out of the loop and cannot fully participate with the group in many situations, although I would like to.

So that was a frustration.

In the afternoon, I sat with the math teachers and tried to mark the 5th grade math papers. It is done in a group to minimize the unfairness that comes from one teacher being very punitive about marks and another teacher inflating the marks.

Also, Country Xers like to do everything together.

I don’t like this system, because I find the people with me spend half of the time marking and half the time off-task and dragging others (including my distractible mind) off with them, so that the effort of maintaining my attention feels Herculean. Also, several of the math teachers are very careless in how they mark, and I find I need to redo it anyway. So it’s not a time-saver.

The thing is they have been giving me the multiple choice sections to mark. It’s very easy, of course, but I began to think they do this because they are all men and they see me, as the only woman, as not being very capable. I can only be expected to do the work normally given to non-teaching staff who have 10th grade educations.

It’s not always very easy to make sense of social messages in another culture, but yesterday I began to suspect men here typically do not see women as being very intelligent. This had never crossed my mind as a possibility before.

It’s an odd experience for me to ponder this, because in the US, I am never seen that way. The gender bias is less intense, but I also talk less here because I am consistently left out of conversations (or the endless gossip and complaining bores me to tears) and no one has any special reason to think I have thoughts of any kind, let alone intelligent ones.

While I was marking, The Girl called. She had wanted to go home in the afternoon, because she is off school in the afternoons, but I am not, and it gets lonely being in the house by herself for 3 hours. I know it doesn’t seem like a long time, but this is Country, where people don’t buy shampoo by themselves.

Then she got home and evidently found the household in more chaos than anticipated. The best cow had died, a second cow was sick, and her mother had responded by embarking on a drinking binge. She said she wanted to come back. I said that seemed like a good idea.

After the marking was finished, I tracked down The Boy, and told him we were going to fetch her. He was not at all happy about this, but went. I have recently (as in, day before yesterday), instituted the “naughty chair,” although we just call it a chair, because I was fed up with his obstructionist tendency (if I can keep you from doing what you want to do, I can feel I have some power and I feel safer). I started this after he was gone for a weekend, and I began to see that life is actually fairly pleasant. He just objects to everything so relentlessly that he sucks the joy out of daily life.

The (maybe) strange thing about having traumatized children is that it’s possible to see them in this very negative way (that he really is grasping at control, it really does make me feel like life is nothing but bleak and unremitting desert), but still feel concern for them. I can’t live with someone who spends so much time trying not to mop the floor that it’s actually more pleasant for me not to try to teach him responsibility, life skills or teamwork, and it’s also not going to be good for his adult homelife if he needs to be in control all the time. (I think of C’s family, and I am pretty sure her stepdad’s need for control is one of the core reasons behind their collective misery.)

What I am getting at is an attitude of acceptance rather than paranoia about negative behaviours. What I see in the children at times appears to be the result of alternating over-indulgence and neglect. I think in The Girl’s case, her parents are afraid of her dramatic presentation of emotions and so either become punitive or frightened in the face of them: either placating or abusing her. What you get out of that as a child is that you are a frightening and dangerous person, and yet that is how you know to get your needs met. It’s not a good self-image to have, and it’s also confusing. Why am I so bad? Why do I do such bad things? You haven’t learned to curtail your own aggression through deliberate control of your impulses, and you also haven’t learned other strategies. What I see in The Boy is more a kind of laziness on the part of the parents or maybe the result of despair. Enforcing boundaries is just too difficult, or maybe the parents feel guilty for the times they have punished their children harshly as a result of lost control and in the same situation where they have once lost their tempers enforce no rules at all. I am not sure.

There is some kind of confluence in my mind of knowing that what I am faced with in the children is re-doing normal developmental stages which were not successfully mastered and trauma-based behaviours.

I remember last year, my therapist was surprised that I mentioned that for traumatized children, personality disorders are one possible outcome. Specifically, one reason I intervened in C’s life is to  to try to prevent this. Maybe it’s neater to categorize the world into victims and perpetrators, but sometimes perpetrators are former victims who are now in positions of power.

It’s exhausting, and I feel very keenly I have no one to talk to about it. The loneliness is sometimes quite intense.

C called last night–I had called her a few times and also sent her a text. I am not usually so persistent unless there is really some matter of urgency at hand, but the Boy kept asking me to call her, which he does not usually do. Anyway, she called back and wanted Galay to call her. He told me, after their talk, that she wanted him to come to her mother’s house so they could come together from there.

Yesterday, her mother said we would meet soon, as though she really did intend to come here. The last time she came to Y-town, she did not tell me she was coming or call me or make any attempt to see me, nor did she come at midterm to see her own daughter. She did come to see me in December. I have my doubts about the whole thing.

There was some point in the past when I did not care very much. I wanted to help C, and I was okay with being kind of like broccoli–good for you, but not necessarily wanted. I don’t feel okay with it now.

So in the morning, when I woke up, at the time when I feel sad anyway, I was thinking about this. I was thinking about not seeing her and about my not knowing whether she wants to see me or not and all of the times she was angry at me when I saw her just for being there.

And I thought something like I can force people to do what makes me feel more comfortable, but there is no joy in that for me. Then I have what I want, but I feel sad about it. I thought not everyone feels that. They feel life is a contest and they want to win.

I also thought I don’t know what the reality of the situation actually is, but reflecting like this tells me about my own mind. Reflection doesn’t tell me whether C is coming, or whether she wants to come, but it tells me about my expectation that she won’t and how I feel about that and if I think about it long enough, I might also start to know why I have those expectations and that could be because of her past behaviour or the past behaviour of other people or both.

The idea of mentalizing helps me. I was thinking, as I reflected about all of this, that what I felt was a sense of being unwanted. It seems to me in the past I might have thought feeling unwanted meant I was unwanted, and so the thought was untolerable to me. I had to get rid of the thought to get rid of the experience.

Now, I think instead that at some point in my life I have felt unwanted and I will again at some point in the future. Not everyone will want me or has wanted me. This is part of life, and understanding how it feels and why it feels that way as well as what to do about it can only help me.

That said, it was pretty awful to feel. Later, I thought my young self felt unwanted quite a lot. My mother did not have much of a sense of other minds, and I may have been compelled to overwhelm her with my needs to get her to see them.

Empathy and mentalization

I have started to be able to recognize affection. I can’t explain to you why I was unable to recognize it before. I think it created so much cognitive dissonance, I didn’t process it. I didn’t realize it was a distinct feeling, with its own facial expression, its own tone of voice, or that it was as evident as happiness or anger.

I am beginning to recognize it because there is one boy in my class who feels it for me and it’s very clear and obvious in his face. I also hear it in C’s dad voice when I talk to him, and sometimes in his older sister’s manner. (She lives in Y-town.)

I was writing last time about mentalization. I read some things that were interesting to me. I am trying to organize them in my mind this morning, because they are lying there in my head in disarray, like loose threads on the verge of tangling.

The first of these threads is that the ability to understand inner states–to make sense of motives and beliefs and feelings–develops over time. Under stress, we tend to lose later-learned abilities.

Our initial ability to mentalize is teleological–in other words, concrete. I know what you are thinking or feeling only from easily recognizable physical actions. If you do things that I understand will bring comfort to me, then I know that you care.

The process of learning to mentalize is disrupted in abused children, because the malignant intentions of the parent are so unfathomable, and it is stalled in neglected children because of loss of opportunity.

Under stress, we are all vulnerable to regressing to this earlier state.

To me, it explains the controlling people I have encountered, as well as C’s tendency to make demands for money or possessions which can feel exploitative to me. If only actions can communicate care, and even then only actions which you have predetermined to be caring actions, then the only way to feel cared about is to control someone’s actions very carefully. It also explains to me why when I first began to work with parts, I needed to find things which were very sensory and physical to help myself calm down. Self-talk had no impact, because I have learned people can lie. I am even capable of lying to myself.

The other strand lying loose in my mind, ready to tangle, has to do with non-mentalizing. Because borderlines hypermentalize (and I think I do too), then trying to make sense of other’s and one’s one mental states can seem impossible or even destructive. I think I ended up in therapy which discouraged mentalization. I and the therapist lived in worlds where attempts to understand motives, especially the motives of others, felt destructive. The only way to stop the spiral of trying to grapple with real or imagined malignancy was to suppress one’s natural attempt to make sense of the world.

My therapy became action-oriented, rather than reflective. “How do you take care of yourself?” stopped me from attempting to make sense of my partner’s motives and encouraged me to stay in a concrete mode, where I could at least act in ways I understood.

The end result of this, however, was to increase my sense of loneliness. Without engaging in the imaginative process of trying to understand other people or find ways to communicate my own inner states to others, the loneliness was unbearable.

In one article I read, it warned clinicians of this: that people form systems, and clinicians can become part of systems along with their clients in which mentalization is no longer engaged in and curiosity about mental states is discouraged.