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.

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Trust and trust

I dreamed, first, that a friend I was visiting had an elaborate system of barrels and hoses in their kitchen with an inscrutable purpose. One of the hoses suddenly began to gush out onto the floor. It took some time to figure out the best thing to do was to let the hose into the sink until the cause of the running water was sorted out. Even in dreams, the obvious doesn’t always come to mind first.

Then I was looking around the house. There was a kind of basement/closet full of unnecessary things, many of them still in boxes.

These days, my dreams are so vivid they seem as much a part of my life as what I do in the day. I went to school yesterday and told my friends I was exhausted from my dreams, but they only looked at me blankly. They must all be sound, quiet sleepers who never dream about gushing hoses or unruly classes that (in my dreams) are always scattered over multiple rooms (so how can I possibly teach them?) or sliding towards the edge of cliffs.

But, before I fell asleep, I was thinking again about Madame Kay. I had dreamed about her the night before. I dreamed she was speaking to me and I could not understand anything she said. Then in the day, I went to talk to her for some time. I don’t see her much these days and I missed her. I began to say something. She pointed across the room at something. I couldn’t tell what. No one was speaking just then. One man was doing something on his phone, another man was just staring (which is what he usually does in the staffroom). She said then, “I’m talking to Health-in-Charge.” (Only she said his name). Health-in-Charge was the man looking at his phone, not saying anything.

She was not unkind about this. She just told me, like I didn’t know and needed to be told.

Then Health-in-Charge said something at last. Madame Kay might have said something back. I couldn’t tell when the conversation was ongoing. I couldn’t tell when it ended either. So I sat silently. Then Maths Sir came and began talking loudly in the Regional Language as he often does, and the conversation trotted on away from me. No one said anything I could understand until one of the other ladies—PPB Maam—came to sit at her table, which is next to Madame Kay’s.

No, I don’t understand anything Madame Kay says anymore.

Yesterday, I was talking to Madame Kay about something or other. Maths Sir came and began talking loudly in the Regional Language. They talked for some time. I couldn’t understand anything. He can interrupt and take the conversation off into some other place I can’t follow. I cannot. Now, maybe this conversation with Health-in-Charge was vitally important and therefore different than my conversation with Madame Kay the day before. I have no idea.

But I was angry, and I sat while PPB Maam and Madame Kay and the others talked, and I responded when appropriate, but I sat there a little in shock. Shock at the incompressibility of the double-standard and shock at my own anger. Leaving, I felt I didn’t think much of Madame Kay anymore. I felt like a use-and-throw friend for her. Maybe I am. Maybe I am entirely misunderstanding the situation. I don’t know. I will probably never know. That was the message in the dream. It is not cultural. I understand everyone else. I just don’t understand her.

In the night, though, I missed her. What I thought about before sleeping was how that felt. Because for one part of me, longing for others is a new feeling. It is as incomprehensible as the hoses in my friend’s dream kitchen.

I thought about trust also. From Madame Kay, I learned a physical trust. I had to. Either I could trust her or I could run away from her, because she kept touching me and I could either get comfortable with that or move out of reach. I chose to get comfortable. I tolerated my fear of touch until it began to dissipate. It hadn’t really occurred to me that trust comes in different forms and, although they are linked, they are not the same. From Madame Kay, I learned simply to feel that someone could be in close physical proximity without being dangerous to me. I learned that people are not man-eating tigers.

You would think I might have learned that before now, but I have not. I have only suppressed my fears. Anyone in the same room with me is a threat. Anyone within arm’s reach might kill me. I think I still feel that way about most other people.

You miss out on a lot that way.

But who to share confidences with, who to ask for help, who to develop an emotional tie with, who can be relied on to be available when you need them, who can be trusted to try to understand. Well, that is a different. I don’t have that worked out, or if I have it worked it out, then it is not linked up with physical trust and I feel afraid to be in the same room as the people I think I can rely on to listen to me.

In fact, I do know that Madame Kay is not reliable. She gets caught up in whatever she is doing and lets other things go. Important things, like her husband, like the kids. In the very beginning, Madame Kay made the suggestion that she would take me along with her to visit a monastery nearby. If she went, she would call me up. She did go, but she forgot to call me. It was only after she arrived that she thought of me, and then it was too late. So that is Madame Kay. She is kind, but her kindness is insubstantial, flimsy. From the standpoint of attachment, she is a poor choice. But I am attached to her because she kept holding my hand. It felt good to trust someone enough to be close to them—anyone. So it felt good to be around her.

I need to learn to trust the people who don’t necessarily hold my hand, who don’t force me either to trust them or run away. I need to learn to stay close to the people who are, you might say, sort of normal.

This is unbearably painful to think about. I am aware for the first time of the loneliness I feel because of my inability to trust, and at the same time I feel such terror at trying to relax my self-protectiveness.

Many years ago, the first time I ever had a real girlfriend, I had this idea that, while I had difficulty trusting, if I could learn to trust just one person, maybe I could learn to trust others. It turned out she was not trustworthy, but the idea holds true in my mind. I learned to trust Madame Kay. I can trust others. But it’s still terrifying.

Safety, security, and trust

lockPeople don’t make me feel safer. Things do.

A locked door, quiet, cleanliness, being able to see the door, even money in my wallet and in the bank–those things make me feel secure.

But lately I’ve begun to see that it can be different from that.

For me, safety with people means that I feel a reasonable degree of certainty that they won’t harm me. And by harm I mean physical assault. Standards, evidently, are low.

It took me years–even decades–to realize that other people seemed to have very different definitions of trust. In a real sense, it didn’t seem to me that I had any problem with trust. People kept telling me that I did have difficulty with trust–notably, therapists–and so I assumed they must be correct. But it didn’t really add up in my mind.

I say that because, overall, I think I’m quite good at assessing matters of physical safety. Having lived and travelled in large, presumably dangerous cities for most of my adult life, I think it says something that I’ve never been robbed, I’ve never had my purse snatched, I’ve been physically sexually harassed but never seriously assaulted. And even that was a very long time ago. I may have just been lucky, but I think I may also have been able to keep myself safe.

I might even be more or less gifted at assessing some kinds of truthfulness, and that helps also with other kinds of safety.

Yes, it’s hard for me to share certain experiences, certain feelings and vulnerabilities with other people. But that’s because I’m afraid some god-like force will appear out of nowhere and strike me dead. It’s nothing to do with the person sitting there listening. I just don’t want to turn into a pillar of salt or a chunk of ash.

It never occurred to me that trust in relationships occurs for reasons well beyond the kind of neutrality that results from an absence of physical threat, and that it has to do with many other, more subtle things. Really. It didn’t.

One of them is simply about presence. The people you trust are the ones who keep coming back. Nandhini and I, despite the 10,000 or so miles between us, have lasted as long as we have in part for the simple reason that one of us keeps calling. And the other keeps picking up the phone. So, the people you trust can be depended on to be there and to be available to you in some way. Not all the time, but enough that it’s something more than a crap shoot. You don’t reach out and keep touching air.

What happens when you are very afraid, as traumatized people often are, is that you don’t reach out, so very few people are ever there. At the same time, you also have a tendency to retreat and to flee and so you aren’t able to be there for other people very well either. You don’t always end up with very trustworthy people in your life, because you can’t always be trusted. So it’s hard. The people who can form relationships with someone who isn’t trustworthy are often not very trustworthy themselves–and sometimes for more nefarious reasons than simply feeling afraid.

And this is probably some of the magic of therapy. You pay them, so they do come back. You can push them away, but they return. It isn’t a two-way street. And so you can have a relationship. You can learn about trust.

But there was a point when I didn’t know to expect that from anyone. I had close relationships–or thought I did–with people who were there sometimes, and other times not.

And then there is this other thing that relates to trust but is entirely new for me. In fact, I don’t understand it. It makes my head hurt to think about it.

This other thing you might call relational trust. Relational trust really comes down to the other person liking you, and liking you for who you are. So there are certain things they don’t do: they don’t tell you that you should live your life differently than the way you are living it, they don’t make fun of you or the of the things that matter to you, they don’t criticize and they don’t judge. Not because they are generous, non-judgmental people, although that helps, but because the reason they spend their time with you is that they enjoy you. The point isn’t just to exercise power over you or to have someone they can feel superior to.

Instead, they encourage you in the pursuit of your goals, because they think what you’re trying to do is worthwhile. Sometimes, they even praise you, because they believe, in spite of your faults, you have good qualities also.

As it turns out, a third element of safety arises out of this: the people who like you and spend time with you find themselves wanting to help you. They can’t turn your life rightside up if it’s gotten itself upside down, but they can lend a hand from time to time–and they do. They want to.

So, if you have secure relationships with safe people, then you aren’t just safe from them, but safer in the rest of your life, because they help you cope with adversity.

It began to occur to me earlier in the year that I felt safer simply having Nandhini in my life. When I have difficult decisions to make, or even just so many small ones I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed, I have a sounding board for thinking about them. At the very least, there is someone to talk them over with who might have a different perspective or a new idea. And there is someone to ask for advice, even if in the end I decide to ignore it.

The fact that this is a surprise to me probably begins with not having parents–not parents who counted,who did parental things. I’ve always had to make my own way in the world, to decide myself what was going to be best for me in the long run. There was never anyone more experienced or knowledgeable to ask. Even now, although I do ask, I find no one else is quite like me. What I am told will work doesn’t work. And approaches that seem effective for other people seem to turn out disastrously for me. Instead, I often ask for information, rather than advice. But the benefits of advice from someone more experienced are ones I’ve come to understand well enough to crave.

But that’s just one kind of help that comes with relational safety.

When I moved out of my apartment recently, I had help. A lot of it, actually. Someone is storing the things I decided to keep and also helped me move them. Someone else brought his truck and pitched in with all the heavy lifting. A third person helped me cart some things I didn’t want off to the charity shop. A fourth person took me to the airport. And the person who is storing my things had me stay with her after I’d moved my things out and there was no longer any place to sleep.

I have never done anything that involved help from so many people, and especially something that wasn’t a crisis or a cause. Just me, needing to pack my things up for an adventure.

I can only guess they did it because they want to see me succeed in this. They like me, and because they like me they also like the kinds of goals I have for myself. But I’m only guessing.

Truth be told, I don’t know what to make of it. It was one of those things I didn’t have enough time to think about. It was happening. And so I still don’t know what to make of it. But it’s the kind of thing that happens in safe relationships.

And that’s the part that’s hard. Because it’s there, and now I can see it is there. But I don’t understand it. I can’t.

The Day After: Confessions, Self-Flagellation, Shame

As an aside, although the beggars videotaped in Britain's Child Beggars all wear traditional Muslim attire, none of them are actually Muslim.
As an aside, although the beggars videotaped in Britain’s Child Beggars all wear traditional Muslim attire, none of them are actually Muslim.

A strange thing has happened. In the mornings, following my usual ritual of staring around at the walls for an hour or so–waking up is not a quick or pretty process for me–instead of sitting down to write in my journal, I start thinking about what to write in the day’s post.

So, what you’re looking at now is my first coherent thought of the day. I have my concerns about that, but let’s see how it turns out, shall we?

Yesterday’s post was a heavy hitter, if you missed it, I think you had better catch up.

At least it was a heavy hitter for me. Understanding the world view I developed growing up in the way that–which is what happened for me in writing that post– did gave me hope for myself and for the future, but then something else happened.

I felt ashamed.

This ashamed. Not nearly this cute.
I am this ashamed. But not nearly this cute.

I feel ashamed of that world and of those people. I feel ashamed of who I was when I lived with them, and of how I thought for many years afterward. There is, in fact, no clear point in my mind when I stopped being like them to a greater or lesser degree and I can instead start seeing myself as a person I can be proud of.

And I am aware that none of how that world functioned is my fault. I didn’t choose to be there. My response to it is not my fault. I might never have been like them even–thinking I must have been like them could just be a part of the con. Because if you aren’t any better than your abusers, you don’t feel as if there is a reason to leave. It’s a self-view with a purpose–not one for your benefit, but a benefit for the abusers. It has a motive. I don’t trust it.

I don’t know what to think.

But I can look back at myself and see little bits of that exploitative sensibility still there in my mind for many years: Among those bits, a habit of avoiding attachments because attachments are vulnerabilities. They open you up for hurt, but they also make it harder to see objectively. You forgive people things they shouldn’t be forgiven, you give more than anyone deserves, you find ways to not to give people up even when they hurt you. It’s better to feel less so that you can think more.

However avoiding attachments also means the relationships you have are more practical in nature: they are based on exchanges of favors. Without attachments, you treat those around you like objects, and yourself as an object as well.

twins
No, probably not a gum advertisement. Let’s rethink that shall we?

You know, like this: I have a coffee maker, and I have a friend I can talk to when I’m stressed, and there’s the other friend who gives advice in sticky situations, and the other one who will keep me company when I’m feeling lonely. Objects to be used, just like the coffee maker.

Not that we don’t do those things when have deeper relationships, but there is something about genuine care that changes everything.

Except I do care. I care almost indiscriminately. I care about people just because. I want everyone to be happier, live longer, be kinder, get through the rough spots, feel loved. Really.

Self, meet your other self. Who would you like to be now?

Get a Dog

How did we get these? Photo credit: Eirich Newth
How did we get these? Photo credit: Eirich Newth

As I mentioned in my last post, dogs have very much been on my mind these days.

Isn’t it strange that we are so gregarious as a species that we have actually invited other species into our worlds to live with us? We think it’s remarkable that ants keep aphid farms, and yet we have invited in more than a dozen species. We keep cats, dogs, rats, mice, birds, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits, snakes, spiders, turtles, and frogs. And those are the ones we keep mainly for the company.

I could add the animals we keep for food, but I think you get the idea.

I am increasingly convinced that nearly all of our psychological ailments arise from unmet needs for company. Nearly all anxiety and depression are really the result of loneliness.

Trauma has its own problems–mostly to do with memory–but the greatest problem is what it does to our relationships. Difficulty managing our emotions makes us difficult to be around. If the trauma was human-caused, as the most debilitating traumas are, we often find ourselves unable to form or maintain supportive relationships.

From these? Photo credit: Joel Sartore.
From these? Photo credit: Joel Sartore.

And if our traumatic experiences began in childhood, then we usually lack important skills needed for relationships: perspective-taking, assertiveness, even turn-taking (because, growing up, it was never our turn for anything).

Put another way, what we usually develop are the skills necessary to maintain relationships with uncaring and harmful people.

Unprotected, vulnerable, and lonely, we feel anxious and hopeless.

And this leads us back to dogs, and cats, and gerbils. Get one.