The boyfriend: Soheil (Don’t wake me up)

paranoiaSoheil is an important part of the guesthouse drama.

Soheil is the boyfriend, although he is not my boyfriend. Don’t get confused. My love life is quite complicated enough without having two partners, thank you very much. Instead, Soheil is Priya’s boyfriend. He also stays in the house—a bad idea, but no one asked me.

Soheil is mad—in both senses, really–chronically angry as well as delusional. He gets these ideas in his head and can’t shake them, or won’t shake them. And he’s paranoid, so these are paranoid delusions.

Currently, Priya is the focus of his delusions, and mostly what he does is start imagining she’s seeing someone else, that she’s sleeping around, or even perhaps that she’s plotting against him.

It would be sad really, except that he is also so selfish, and it is this combination of not being able to reason clearly as well as a sense of entitlement that makes him so dangerous and that makes him seem like a prime candidate for intimate violence.

Madness—whether we can think clearly, whether we get odd and irrational ideas in our heads—those kinds of things are not anyone’s fault. We don’t know why they occur, but I have no doubt that no one chooses to be that way. It’s unpleasant—quite clearly.

But this sense of entitlement is another thing entirely.

I should explain.

In the night—it must have been around two or three in the morning—he stood outside my window and began calling up to Priya, who stays in the room above mine. He wanted to come into her room. He wanted to check to see if someone was hiding there.

That is not madness. That is entitlement. Madness is the irrational fear, and the way the fear seems so real. Entitlement is the reason you wake up the rest of the neighborhood on account of it.

We all worry. We all get strange ideas in our heads at times and can’t shake them—witness my own paranoia about hosting lice just a few weeks ago. But some of us suffer quietly with our madness or we call up a pre-arranged safe person who we know can comfort us and talk us down from the psychic ledge like toddlers. We don’t stand in the road and demand to be indulged.

I got up and banged the windows shut. This is India. People take hints. Not Boyfriend. Boyfriend went on. But with the window shut, it was quieter. I went off to sleep again.

In the afternoon, there was more shouting. I heard something fall. Being a good friend, I went up to Priya’s room to investigate and, also being a good friend, I said nothing about the shouting or the falling objects. I asked an innocent question related to lunch that I did, in fact, want to know the answer to.

And for a second all was well. I played with the dog, or rather the dog played with me: he still sees me at times like a giant chew toy. My hands are things that belong in his mouth. It’s really the bangles I’m wearing that get him so excited. He likes the sound. And unfortunately for me, the sound is attached to my hands. I asked some questions about what was playing on TV. (Cocktail.)

Then Boyfriend asked, “You were disturbed in the night?”

I wasn’t going to say anything to him about this. He’s not my lodger and not my responsibility how he behaves. But he asked.

And I have this thing about sleep and not being woken up in the night just because someone feels like it.

So I let him have it.

He wanted to argue about this, to say what had kept me up was Priya’s screaming back at him, but if you wake someone up in the middle of the night to check for nonexistent suitors, screaming is a perfectly reasonable response. Also, by the time she started shouting at him, I was fully awake.

He wanted me to understand there were reasons. I told him I didn’t care. In fact, I should have said no one had snakebite or was delivering a baby or bleeding to death. No one had been physically assaulted or robbed blind. No, there weren’t reasons. But you never think of those things, do you?

At last, I told him that if he understood that what he had done was wrong, then he should apologize. And if he didn’t, there was nothing further to say.

So he said he was sorry.

But he still wanted to go on, to justify his actions, to persuade me of something. I told him he had apologized and had accepted the apology. There was nothing else to say.

And then Uncle #2 came and made him go away.

By the time this was all over, I was out of breath with shouting and with rage.

Don’t wake me up in the middle of the night. Not just because you are feeling uncomfortable. That isn’t a reason. It’s an excuse.

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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.

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.

Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Yourself?

My cat investigates string theory in her free time. Maybe I should too.
My cat investigates string theory in her free time. Maybe I should too.

“Don’t you ever get tired of yourself?” Alexis asked across the table as they worked on their poster. She was talking to Zach. (Let’s call him that. His name wasn’t Zach, but half the other boys’ names were. Her name was also not Alexis. But let’s leave that aside.)

He didn’t answer, but he did shut up for a while.

Zach, a professional actor outside of his otherwise normal boy’s life, who was also strangely unkempt, unbathed, hungry just the year before, was just looking for attention. What he knew how to do was perform, and he did that well. Too well for Alexis’s taste.

But I get tired of myself also. Doesn’t everyone?

Maybe not. Maybe it’s just all the effort it takes to be me, to keep being me. Day after day. You tell me.

Because keeping my head on straight is a full-time job, and I get fed up of doing it. And it’s not that I don’t think keeping my head on straight is a worthwhile endeavor. It very much is. There are very few things as personally necessary or rewarding as maintaining the state of my head but, well, it’s just a bit tiring.

And sometimes I’d prefer to spend all that energy and thought on something new. Trying to understand string theory for example. I really would like another go at that.

I'm pretty sure Germonpre is wrong--not about the age of the school, but about how dogs evolved.
I’m pretty sure Germonpre is wrong–not about the age of the skull, but about how and why dogs evolved.

Or how, when, and where dogs were domesticated. That’s another interesting question.

But what I’m doing instead is thinking about my mother. Still.

The peculiar thing about being less dissociated is that you have to decide again what you think–about a whole host of things. Repeatedly. Because every time you gain access to memories, or points of view, or feelings, the old ways of looking at things become incomplete, lopsided, biased. You now have information that says you were wrong, perhaps not entirely, but wrong to one extent or another.

And if you dissociated great chunks of your life, this process of deciding again what you think happens often and over a long period of time. It would, in fact, be easier just to suspend having any opinion about anything until the whole process of integration was complete, but it turns out it doesn’t work that way.

Like redoing your kitchen, it turns out you still need to be able to cook.

lana-del-rey-born-to-die-videoShe reminds me a lot of Lana Del Rey. All of the women in my father’s life do. She was grandiose, histrionic, prone to delusion if not outright psychosis.

If you’ve ever read Christine Lawson’s Understanding the Borderline Mother, my mother often acted the part of the waif: put-upon, abused, victimized.

“You treat me like a dog!” was a favorite refrain.

I always found that ironic. I really like dogs.

But I think now she really was victimized. As much as my father abused me, he also abused her. Because she was so crazy, abusing her was easy. Hurting someone with no emotional skin is like falling off a log: simple, effortless.

My father did contempt well. He taught it to the rest of us also.
My father did contempt well. He taught it to the rest of us also.

What she really meant was we didn’t respect her. And that wasn’t her being delusional. We didn’t. My sister and I may have said all the right things, we may have obeyed her an adequate amount of the time, but we had no respect for.

We didn’t have any compassion for her either.

And maybe it would have been hard to have any in any case: When your parent fails in the most fundamental tasks of nurturing and protecting you, when they seem to be selfish to the core, it’s hard to think much of them.

But the real reason we didn’t think much of her was my father didn’t think much of her. He doesn’t think much of anyone.

On Reptiles and Possibility

My first and longest long-term relationship was psychologically abusive. It never escalated to physical violence, but at the point when I left, it seemed it might.

Clouded monitor lizard eating a scorpion.
Clouded monitor lizard eating a scorpion.

I wonder, even now, why I stayed so long and what would have helped me during that time. Because, in fact, no one could help me. I was in therapy during part of this time, but quit when I found myself leaving every session feeling suicidal and utterly without hope.

What set me off was the therapist asking me during these sessions, “What can you do to take care of yourself?” And it seemed to elide the fact that I couldn’t, that there was nothing I could do to either protect myself or recover from the psychological assaults.

Accepting reality is important. And I began to feel hopeful and capable of taking action again when, out of therapy, I could acknowledge that I could not prevent someone I cared about from psychologically wounding me, and that I could do nothing to prevent the extent of the wounding.

Having a heart has its price. And that’s one of them.

But what really kept me with someone who hurt me all the way to the core on nearly a daily basis was my uncertainty about what life had to offer or what could reasonably expected from other people. And I needed to be set straight. I needed to be told clearly, “Not everyone does this to the people they claim to love. Not everyone will do this to you. More is possible for your life–even likely. There is a reason to hope for more.”

I sometimes think of the people who raised me as reptiles. They raised me to live among other reptiles: animals that are not oriented toward caring for one another, that don’t even recognize their young, and that prey upon whatever is the right size and available.

I had seen people before. I had some guesses about what they might act like, but I didn’t know if I was a person or a reptile, and I wasn’t entirely clear on how different the behavior of reptiles and people really is.

There was a lot I just did not know. And I needed to be told. Quite directly. Not in that indirect, therapist kind of way, “What do you think?” Because actually most of my experience and knowledge of the world supported a view that I am a reptile, raised to live among reptiles, and not among human beings and that what I can expect from life is to be preyed upon.

60606-3x2-340x227It grieves me deeply to know now that I escaped the captivity of my childhood only to continue to live for decades in a captivity that lived on in my mind, and that the 9 years I lived with a psychologically abusive spouse was a large part of that ongoing experience of captivity.

The common thinking about battered women is that they are more afraid of loneliness, change, or the unknown than of staying with a spouse who could end up killing them. I was not afraid. I had lived through considerably worse. But I did not know if I wanted to continue to live in this world if life had nothing better to offer than more abuse.

An innate optimism, plus some brushes with life with people, made me think that this simply couldn’t be true. But I needed to be sure. I needed to know.

I needed to know that leaving meant walking out the door of the last prison I might ever need to occupy, and that I wasn’t fleeing one predator only to find myself surrounded by a world of others exactly the same.

I still wish, after all these years, that someone could have simply told me.

Frequently, I have found therapists preoccupied with questions of self-esteem, with ideas about a just world. They think if you feel better about yourself or believe yourself more deserving, you will be better off, that you will demand more from life and that you will do more to assert your rights and your needs.

But I don’t believe in a just world. I’m not sure how anyone who grew up the way I did could. Things happen, good or bad, for often arbitrary and capricious reasons. Bad things didn’t happen to me because I was a bad person. Good things aren’t necessarily going to happen to me because I am good. The world is not just, God is not just, and people are not just. At least not all the time.

What I needed to know was what was possible–and what is possible now. I didn’t need self-esteem to escape. I just needed to know it was possible to escape, and that the trip was likely to be worthwhile.

We need each other so much, even a glance can wound. Barbara Kruger, 1981. All rights reserved.
We need each other so much, even a glance can wound. Barbara Kruger, 1981. All rights reserved.

I really don’t know what it’s like for others who fall into abusive relationships but come from somewhat more average backgrounds. I don’t know what it’s like to have your sense of safety, rights, and worth stripped away from you. I never had those. But I wonder if we really understand their struggles or their experience, or if the way we think about abusive relationships between adults is a misjudgment, just as others misjudged me.

At the very least, I think we need to understand the sense of captivity that comes from being harmed by someone you depend on–as we all depend on our spouses and loved ones. We need to understand the worry that perhaps there really is nothing better on the other side of abuse, that there may be nothing worth fighting for or worth fleeing into, because this is as good as life gets. And I think we need to understand the ongoing sense of powerlessness that comes from being regularly assaulted, and the sense of being beyond the reach of the rest of the world.

Because, in fact, when your spouse is assaulting you, you are powerless. At least in that moment. And the rest of the world almost never steps in to protect you. Perhaps afterward, but never when the fist is raised, never when the hands are outstretched to shove you. No one ever comes when you need them.

And we construct reality from what we see.

A Question of Rights

A decade ago, I was involved in a relationship that would best be described as emotionally abusive. I was in therapy for this and for a while the whole thing made me terribly depressed. But when I walked away in the end, it was easy.

We were in the car when my partner and I decided to end it. She said in an off-hand kind of way, “I don’t think you’ll ever be happy with me.”

I said, “No, probably not.”

And that was the it. A relationship I had spent all of my adulthood making was over. It wasn’t hard. I never missed her. I did not feel lost without her. I felt angry over the lost years I had given to the task of trying to make one thing into something it never could be. But that was all.

We think of rights as the right to success, but do our rights include the right to fail?
We think of rights as the right to success, but do our rights include the right to fail?

Now, from the perspective of that part of my life being in the rather distant past, I recall most clearly the question my therapist kept asking me, “What do you get out of staying?” Because the answer really was nothing. I didn’t know I could leave. No one told me.

We live in an age of entitlement, but I was raised to be a possession. Years later, I continue to wonder what my legitimate rights are. Do I have the right to make mistakes? To lack the skills I need to achieve my goals? Do I have the right to be imperfect, to fail, to give up? Do I have the right to say, “Enough. Enough of this. I don’t like it and I want to do (or be) something else?” Do I have the right to not know the answers to my own questions, to be uncertain and unsure, to lack confidence, or to be afraid? Do I?

And I suppose the answer is yes.

Is it?