Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Danger of Letting Others Define You 

No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow
--Alice Walker

For the longest time, I thought I was a depressive. Never mind that, actually, I was probably having more fun -- and was less scared -- than almost anyone else I knew. But because I felt intense sadness at times, and thought a lot about deep things, and wrote about those things, including about the dark stuff as well as the light, I never felt like I was "happy" enough. People told me I was depressed. I even pigeonholed myself, to an extent, becoming someone who writes about depression. And yes, I have been depressed, even been on antidepressants twice. But does that make me a person with depression? Or does that make me someone who is sensitive, thinks deeply, seeks help when things get bad, and isn't afraid of talking about the darkness? 

Recently, as I've begun to understand more about what happiness is, I realized that in some ways I'm probably one of the happiest people I know. If happiness is, as a friend and I were discussing today, the fact of living a life in keeping with one's values,  of feeling like you're living the life that you're meant to live, than I'm doing really well. Even despite - or possibly because of - the fact that I listen deeply to what my soul and psyche are telling me, and I talk about it.

For a long time I've thought of myself as a dour, dark person who feels sad all the time, and I've even considered stopping writing the blog because I've felt like it's depressing. But I feel compelled to continue to share my deepest feelings and thoughts about life. Does that make me dour and depressing? It's when I realized that the posts with the most emotion in them are the ones that generate the most feedback that I realized that the people I'm writing to aren't the ones who think we should only reflect the "happy" parts of life, but the ones who appreciate the true complexity of life. The ones who define me as a depressive are not my audience. The ones who don't bother to define me at all, but appreciate the way I mirror life in my writing, that's not only my audience, but the people I want to have around me. As friends. As lovers. As colleagues. The people who can't see the complexity that I weave with my life and my art are just, put simply, not my people.

I think this is true of all of us. The people who insist on putting us in a box are not our people. The people who accept us  -- or even if they have trouble accepting us, are at least interested in hearing about us -- in all of our depth and complexity, those are the people who will come along for the ride with us, who will be there to mirror our true experience and won't tell us what we're feeling or tell us we shouldn't be feeling it.

It's important that we take the time to define ourselves, and that we see clearly when others are trying to define us in their own terms or in relation to what they want us to be.  In researching verbal abuse for my last post, I found one writer who considered "attempting to define you" as behavior that could be a part of verbal abuse.

We all try to categorize the people in our lives to a certain degree, but it's when we need to define someone, to put them into a category such as "crazy," "slut," "asshole," "flake,"  or even "housewife," "businessman,"  or "straight A student", and refuse to acknowledge or even see the times when they don't conform to that definition, that it becomes a problem.

Someone who used to insist that I was always depressed (whom I no longer consider a friend) used to use my blog as evidence of this, despite all the times that we spent enjoyable, happy, laughing times together, and even the times that I wrote about more neutral or even happy subjects. She needed to think of me as a depressed, desperate person for her own reasons that had nothing to do with me. But for a long time, I thought she was right. Now I know that that sad, depressed, desperate person that she saw, though still a part of me, is not the whole me. And now I will only give my time to people who don't need to put me in a box like that.

How about you? How do you define yourself? How do others define you? And what are the parts of you that don't fit into any definition?

Monday, July 18, 2011

 It's Not Okay, Part 2:  
Speaking out about Verbal Abuse

I was lying in bed, wondering if it was finally time to tell my loved ones the truth about what happened in a significant intimate relationship. About the verbal abuse and the reason I stopped speaking to my ex: that he had hit me one evening during an insane tirade that had lasted hours. I was thinking about whether I should write about it publically, or if I did, if I would be motivated by revenge or self-righteousness rather than the purer motive of wanting to tell others out there that they're not alone in dealing with abusive partners. I was wondering if I was right in calling it abuse, or if, as my dad told me when I was 25 and confronted him about his abusive behavior, I was just being a victim, just feeling sorry for myself. I'd never told anyone about this behavior, would telling it for the first time on a blog be wrong, be sick? Or would it be more wrong, more sick, to keep silent?

I got up and turned on the computer, meaning to write down some of what was coursing through my mind. As I checked my e-mail, I literally gasped. A friend had written me letting me know something devastating about his relationship. This is a relationship I'd always admired from afar. They had seemed so happy, so perfectly matched. I had envied them. And now this. I was floored. After writing him to show my support, I wondered it if was a sign that I needed to speak out about my own story. I remembered how, over drinks with a friend once, she told about the ex-husband who used to get violently angry and hit her. I almost told my story then, but I was too ashamed. But knowing that she had experienced this and gotten out, moved on, made me feel a little better about my situation. It's silence that hurts, that keeps us from knowing the others around us who might help up, that keeps us from getting out. Why keep silent anymore?

I'm still ashamed. But recently I've become slowly more and more conscious that a big part of my healing is understanding that this behavior was wrong, that it was abusive. More and more, I'm awakening to what really happened, and how traumatizing it was for me. The emotional and psychological manipulation, the sexual withholding, the lies and half-truths,  the triangulation with other women, meant to keep me off balance, the passive-aggressive control maneuvers, meant to slice my heart open. And the verbal abuse: the horrid name-calling, the strings of expletives thrown at me, sometimes in public. The e-mails and verbal rants about what a horrible person I am. And then the last straw, the blood on my lip after he hit me as I grappled with him to save the laptop he'd grabbed from me in a rage. Anger and conflict happen in couple relationships, and fighting is normal. But this? This was not normal, nor healthy.

I used to think it was my fault, which is what I was told repeatedly. But I'm starting to wake up from that, as if from a dream. No. It was not my fault. Yes, I did things I regret in that relationship, yes, I did things that were unhealthy. But nothing I did justified that treatment. Nothing justified the horrible torrent of words that shamed me, cowed, me left me cold, left me wanting to kill myself because I was so obviously a useless waste of breath. In a camping trailer, rocked by the wind, the horrible black river of words triggered by a stupid catty accusation I'd spit out while I was upset - his bizarre, unreal counter-accusations, said with such conviction that I almost believed them - pouring onto me for an hour, so that I literally curled up into a fetal position and wanted to die. He was right, I was absolutely useless and fucked up. I didn't deserve to live. He told me that once: that I was so fucked up I should just throw myself out the window of my third-story apartment.

And then, afterwards, the feeling I had, not of rage, not of anger, not making plans to leave him, but feelings of GRATITUDE that he still wanted me! Walking with him, meek and numbed, pretending to smile and be happy because I knew that's what he wanted, knew he wanted to pretend nothing had ever happened. The hope that if I acted like nothing had happened, then perhaps nothing had.

We don't talk about behavior like this in this culture, unless the abuse is horrific and the story ends up in in the pages of a newspaper. Unless someone is bleeding, in the hospital. There's no hotline for psychological or emotional violence. But it can be just as harmful as physical violence. And it's not okay, the mean teasing, the belittling, the cutting comments, the name-calling, the rage attacks behind closed doors. It's not okay, in any universe.

It's embarrassing, isn't it, to let others know what we've endured? That we stayed in a situation that was so bad? We feel ashamed. I know that's how I've felt for years, ever since I stopped talking about that relationship with my friends and family because I didn't want them to know how bad it had gotten. 

I guess I'm writing this here because I want to finally not be ashamed anymore. I want others who experience this kind of treatment to know they're not alone and that it's not okay. I started this blog because I wanted to help others by exploring my own journey. My story, as all our stories, is universal. We all struggle to learn and grow through our lives, and I want to help people by showing my own explorations, struggles, and triumphs. And this episode in my life, one of the worst times of my life and also, sometimes, the best, how can I not write about it? This is part of my experience. A part I'm still healing from and coming to terms with.

Once, in a group therapy session where I was talking about my dad's physical abuse of me as a young child, the women in the group became enraged on my behalf. "Why aren't you mad??," they yelled at me, after I talked about what happened in a very matter-of-fact voice. "Why are you so reasonable about this? Why aren't you upset??" I said I didn't know. I just didn't feel mad anymore. I had forgiven him. 

I am angry - furious - and sad, so sad. I still miss the good things. Still sometimes miss him. Why did I let this happen? I still blame myself, and he blamed me, too. My rage comes and goes, dancing with self-doubt. I don't know if it's right to go public with this, but I do know that it's not something to be ashamed of.  I did nothing wrong, or the things that I did wrong did not justify the hateful treatment.

Today, I start telling people. Today it's no longer a dark secret hidden under a rug. I'm here to say: This type of behavior is not right, no matter who is doing it; it can never be justified.  Nobody has the right to treat anyone that way. And no, it was absolutely not my fault. My only fault was staying when I should have walked away. But maybe that was also part of not wanting to admit what was happening. 

How about you? do you have a dark secret you've been hiding, out of shame or embarrassment? What do you think it would take to start talking about it?

Photo: This is part of an ad campaign sponsored by the Aware Helpline in Singapore, informing the public about verbal abuse and offering help and support for victims.

There is no hotline specifically for people being subjected to verbal or emotional abuse, but in the US, the Domestic Violence Hotline is (800) 799-SAFE (800-799-7233)

if you suspect you're in an abusive relationship of any sort, here's an informative website.

Friday, July 15, 2011

No More Ms. Nice Girl Or:
It's not Okay to Treat People like Crap. Please Stop Doing It.

I've made quite the career out of being reasonable, measured, empathetic, and compassionate. I'm the one friends turn to when they're troubled, no matter what happened, because they know I won't judge them. I'm the one who's quick to take responsibility for my own actions and issues that contributed to a conflict. I'm the one who feels bad when I feel I've been short with or dismissive of someone else, even if that person didn't notice anything amiss. I'm the one who, when a friend is quick to judge someone, says something reasonable in a reasonable tone, about what might have been going on in that situation. More than one person has rolled their eyes at me when I've pointed out that they may be seeing things in a one-sided way. I'm the one who rarely uses shaming or judgmental words or calls people names, even when I'm upset at them. I'm the one who, on a recent first date, thought seriously about whether to see the guy again because he was so quick to say how much he hated whole classes of people. I can almost always see more than one side - if not several sides - to any situation. Yes, I'm one of THOSE people.

But you know what? There's one thing that's been making me angry lately, and I don't feel like being polite and understanding about it. This is it: It is NOT okay to treat other people like crap. It's not acceptable to make nasty comments in blog posts that you disagree with, simply because you're basically anonymous. It's not okay to string people along who are in love with you so they'll do stuff for you. It's not okay to cheat on your wife, no matter how unhappy you are. No. It's not okay, and there are no rationalizations that will make it okay. 

It's not okay to denigrate people, to call them insulting names, to push them around, to manipulate their emotions, or to hit them. It's just not. It's not okay to stand people up on dates, it's not okay to lie, it's not okay to pretend you're something that you're not in order to get your way. It's not okay to blame everyone else for your problems. It's not okay to have come into adulthood without any understanding of or concern with how your actions affect other people. It's not okay to use people for your own ends. It's not okay to tease someone in a hurtful way because it makes you feel better about yourself. It's not okay to refuse to pay child support when your ex-wife is raising your kids. It's not okay to insult a woman because you're mad that she won't sleep with you.  It's not okay to neglect your kids in any way. It's just simply not okay to be a jerk. Is that clear? 

I'm so tired of people being mean, pushy, manipulative, insensitive, selfish, and cruel. Not everyone is like this by any means, but I'm tired of being so understanding and reasonable about the ones who are, tired of taking sole responsibility for my responses to behaviors that I find hurtful. Because you know what? They feel hurtful because they ARE hurtful. If you are an adult person who cannot act in a way that's even basically sensitive, considerate, self-aware, and compassionate, if you are an adult who doesn't care about the effect your actions have on others, then you are failing as a human being, and you need to do some serious work on yourself.   

I understand why it happens: the cruel or insensitive parents, the media that trains men and women in the art of acting like walking cliches, the stress, the deep insecurities, the psychological issues. I get it. But here's something else: we are all human beings and we have very big brains. We have big brains because each and every one of us who is a normally-developed adult has the capacity to reflect on our own actions. If we choose to not reflect, than we are a jerk. Plain and simple. You can call it anything you want, you can give it a name that ends in "disorder." But the truth is that if you treat people like crap without taking any responsibility for it and reflecting on (and subsequently changing) your pattern of behavior, and apologizing with sincerity when you mess up, you're a jerk and that's the long and short of it. 

I'm not going to appeal for politeness by calling on our innate shared humanness. Screw that. I'm going to call on our innate aversion to be called a jerk and say: if you are a jerk, please change. Stop acting like a selfish, cruel, insensitive (insert favorite name for male or female genitalia here). You can do it. I have faith in you. I'm tired of being polite and understanding about it. Just simply cut it out. Seek therapy, change jobs, move to another town, do whatever you have to do to become a decent human being. Because this world has enough jerks in it, and we certainly don't need any more. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

We Let What Arises, Arise.

Every time I get to about the 45-minute point in my 1 1/2-hour yoga class, I start to get cranky. I want to go home. I'm tired. I want to eat something, or crash on my couch and watch whatever movie I have waiting for me. I can think of all these chores and tasks I want/need to do. My mind starts to wander. My yoga teacher always talks about "letting what arises arise." At this point in yoga, I could get up and walk out. Nobody's stopping me. Or I could slack off and just not do the harder poses. That's what the class is like. You do what you want to do and no more. I could let my mind wander and just not focus on what she's saying. But what's interesting is, if I relax and just let it happen, the discomfort at being in the middle of yoga class isn't quite as bothersome as it might have been if I had tightened up about it and let the cranky, tired story take over.

When I start to watch the clock in yoga class, I play with it. Sometimes I want to sneak a peak, during downward dog, at the clock, and sometimes I don't let myself. How does that feel? Then, sometimes, I do let myself. How does that feel? It's a good lesson in letting it all arise, no matter what, and in not judging it. Sometimes, I'm shocked at how slowly time moves. Then, when I get into a sequence, I peek at the clock and 15 minutes has gone by. Poof. And what's different each time? Not much, just what I'm choosing to focus on.

I stopped doing yoga for about six months, because each day that I had a class, I'd spend the entire day feeling bad about it, making excuses not to go, feeling tired and out of sorts. I finally decided that if it was that painful, there was no reason to do it. But since I've come back from New Orleans, my life has changed to the extent that I can, for some reason, let things just be. I can notice the discomfort at the prospect of doing weird poses in a hot room for 1 1/2 hours, and not feel strongly one way or the other. I can decide to go or not go, and not make up a story about it. Or I can come home and goof around on the internet and not feel guilty. I can go on dates and not feel nervous, and not feel upset if things don't seem to go well. I can get an e-mail from my ex- and feel vaguely amused but not caught up in the old drama. Or I can start to get caught up in the old drama and watch myself not get truly hooked by it. I can have plans for Saturday or not. I can not sleep well on a particular night and not be upset by that fact the next day. I can just let what arises, arise.

How odd. 

When we let things just come up and be, they don't have power over us. In yoga class, when I wish the class was over, I can just experience the feeling of wanting the class to be over. I don't have to have a story about why the class is so long or how I'm too weak to do a 1 1/2 hour class, or how the woman next to me is better than I am and she doesn't seem to be tired. It's the same with everything else. Play with it. When you're hungry, can you just be hungry? When you're sad, can you just be sad? When you're confused, can you just be confused? How long can you let it just be? Then when you start to make up a story, can you just watch that process without jumping into it, wholeheartedly? "Oh, there's that story again." Can you let what arises, arise? 

Here's a concept: What if everything is perfect the way it is? This can be an easy or impossible concept to grasp, depending on what your circumstances are. But no matter how difficult things are, is it possible to relax around it and, even if just for .3 seconds, let it be what it is? I don't want to be on this mat, hot and sweaty. Oh well. I don't want it to be this cold outside. Oh well. I don't want what happened in my last relationship to have happened. Oh well. Maybe you don't want to be unemployed, to hate your boss, to be in the situation in your relationship that you're in, to be sick, for your mother to have just passed away. But can you let what arises, arise? And if you can't, can you let that arise and be OK? 

Yoga teaches us many things: to pay attention to how we hold our bodies, to breathe, to stay committed to something that's often hard, to be patient, to be self-compassionate, to not judge ourselves or others. One thing it teaches is that discomfort is not inherently negative. It just is. It can be borne. Also: usually, discomfort means that we're not allowing ourselves to relax into an experience, and sometimes that we're literally not breathing. When I practice not giving up at the 45-minute point in yoga class, I also practice not giving up, lashing out, tensing up, or getting swept up in story outside of yoga class. Emotional pain, like yoga class, will end. And, like yoga class, it makes us stronger and can make us more flexible if we can choose not to harden against it, not to stiffen, not to get up and walk out. And, as my yoga teacher says in the middle of difficult poses: "Remember to breathe! Breathing is good!"