All the small things

I’ve come to realize lately that I’m not as “over” some of the abuse that’s happened to me as I thought, for I while, I was.  It’s disconcerting to admit how much another person’s cruelty can continue to affect your life and self many years after the fact.

Example in point:  In the last couple of years of my marriage to my son’s father, he (the husband) worked shifts that started at 4:30 AM.  Invariably, he would set our alarm clock for 3:00, and then when it went off he would set it forward ten minutes and go back to sleep, and do this several times in a row.  He didn’t hit the snooze button, insisting it might not work, but pushed the “minute” button ten times instead. 

WAAAH! WAAAAH! WAHH! WAAAH! click click click click click click click click click click

Under normal circumstances, this might have been merely an annoyance, but at the time, I was trying to care for a fussy infant with stomach issues who slept in our bed and woke to breastfeed every couple of hours per night and never woke up later than 7 in the morning.  (Spare me your parent-judgment if you have it in store.  I did what was right by my hypersensitive child and gave him what he not wanted but needed.)  I was sleep deprived and suffering from exhaustion so severe that I couldn’t eat, despite losing 1500 calories per day in breastmilk, and would suddenly fall asleep sitting upright during the day.  It was also a time during which our marriage was in its final stages of falling apart, which it had been doing before we ever said our ‘vows’; my soon-to-be-ex-husband had no interest in sharing in our son’s care; we had just moved to a new city and I knew nothing and no one; I was struggling to complete my bachelor’s degree amidst all the chaos; and to top it all off my anxiety and mood issues were rapidly coming to a head, and my husband was about as non-supportive as could be about my going back on therapy and meds.

So, that’s the long of it; the short of it is that when I asked him to please stop resetting the alarm every ten minutes every morning click click click click click click click click click click, and instead use the fucking snooze button or just fucking get out of bed when the fucking alarm fucking went off the first fucking time (not, I emphasize, the words I used at the time) so that I could avoid being kept awake for 40 minutes for the seventy-third time each night– when I brought up these matters– we got into a giant row, as we usually did, screaming at each other, calling each other names, threatening each other with divorce and custody and finances, and I, as I usually did, ended up crying and begging him to forgive me and then sitting in the bathroom while he slept, slicing into my thighs with a hunting knife and wracked with uncontrollable sobs.

Keep in mind, at this point I hadn’t really learned about panic attacks, hadn’t been diagnosed with bipolar or anxiety or autism, didn’t know why I felt so fucking horrible all the time, felt I was trapped for the rest of my life in a loveless, violent, manipulative relationship, and was basically alone in caring for a challenging child at the age of twenty, while also trying to remember who I was and get a degree that would allow me to provide for our family, and while most of my peers were out drinking from kegs at keg parties or something along those lines, I don’t really know. 

So that wasn’t really the short of it: the short of it is that for all these reasons and so many more, that fight sticks in my brain and won’t get out.  I am bless-cursed with a sporadically perfect eidetic memory for auditory stimuli.  When something I hear makes an impression on me, because it’s such a horrible dry grating noise or because it was screamed in my face, for instance, or because it accompanied really vivid emotions, I will later not just remember that noise but hear it in my head over and over every time I think about it, with the same reaction that I had when it first happened.  So I can close my eyes and hear it all now:  the things we screamed, the click click click click click click click click click click.  And it hurts, because I realize that I still feel pity and contempt and grief for the very young woman I was, and that even though I cope much better now with the kind of feelings those sounds elicit, they can still fill my brain and ruin my week.

Why am I thinking about all this at 3:40 in the morning?  Because I can’t sleep, and I just set the alarm to make sure I’m up to get my son ready for school at 6:30.  Click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click click.  And it all comes back to me now, as Celine Dion predicted.  And if it were just the alarm clock, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.  I could buy a wind up alarm clock, or set an alarm on my phone or computer. 

But why bother, because it’s not just that, it’s so many small things around the house, around this town, around my head that would need to be locked away in a safe marked “TRIGGER WARNING.”  I have a new bed, I’ve rearranged the living room, but even in my own apartment there are times and places when it hits me like a tidal wave of bricks, the memories, the feelings. 

We’re taught these days to believe that we control who and what we are.  But the truth is, we can’t help some of the things done to us.  They are real, and they affect our brains as much as falling out of an airplane affects a body.  You can’t wish it away.  Like it or not, better or worse, whether you think it will or not, when you bring someone close to you, it changes you.  You can become happy again.  I know people do.  But no matter how long it’s been, you can’t go back.

Maybe it really isn’t for you…

You all know that I can’t resist stirring the pot when it’s hot.  There’s been a heartwarming (blech) new blog post circulating in social media the last few days, leaving a lot of heads nodding.  (Presumably in agreement, but maybe they were just tired.)  My heart’s not particularly warmed, but I do have my skeptical face on right now.  Here it comes.

I don’t like the message of this blog post, by Seth Adam Smith.  I think, intended or not, it slips in unhealthy, archaic platitudes about relationships beneath the guise of an insightful sentiment-fest.  I also think it’s one of those memes that asserts its own truth unchallenged and with enough face-value appeal that it elicits a positive response without people stopping to construct logical counter-arguments.  So it’s my duty to answer some of its content point-by-point, raising some serious objections.

I met my wife in high school when we were 15 years old. We were friends for 10 years until … until we decided no longer wanted to be just friends. I strongly recommend that best friends fall in love. Good times will be had by all.

Well, that’s really very nice, but right off the bat we have reason to suspect Smith’s capability for insight into relationships as a whole.  It sounds like he’s only had the one serious relationship, and he might need a little more varied experience to make generalizations about commitment.

Nevertheless, falling in love with my best friend did not prevent me from having certain fears and anxieties about getting married. The nearer Kim and I approached the decision to marry, the more I was filled with a paralyzing fear. Was I ready? Was I making the right choice? Was Kim the right person to marry? Would she make me happy?

Okay, so he was either having some run-of-the-mill cold feet– in which case he would have eventually decided that he did think he’s be happy with the choice– or he was having serious reservations, in which case he really probably shouldn’t get married just because it will make his partner happy.

My dad giving his response to my concerns was such a moment for me. With a knowing smile he said, “Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.”

To be fair, Smith’s quoting his dad here, so he didn’t originate this idea, he just climbed on board.  That still puts it squarely in his jurisdiction.  My main problem with this argument is that it equates marriage with having in-laws and children, and coparenting the children.  It assumes that without a legally binding contract, couples can’t nevertheless have all the benefits of love, closeness and shared lives.  It goes without saying how conservative this viewpoint is, but it also serves to shame and reject single parents, gay parents, and couples who simply choose not to marry, by insinuating that they are somehow leaving out a step, a service you ought to do your partner and children for some reason.

It also implies that people in unmarried relationships do not “make [each other] happy,” or at least not as happy as marriage does.  This partly smells to me like a like a misogynist assumption that women are all conniving to get men to marry them (presumably because they want an easy income?  I don’t know) and men are doing their girlfriends a favor by relenting and finally buying the cow.  Indeed, this whole piece, in its man-to-man chat way, embodies an androcentric and bigoted perspective.  Men, it whispers, you need to pony up and do right by your gal like your parents did, or she won’t be pushing your babies out.

As such, this passage not only perpetuates a ridiculous stereotype of women, it again excludes from reckoning all the nuances of coupling– the queer community, polyamorous relationships, and of course simply women who didn’t really want to get married anyway.  It never seems to recognize the obvious question:  What if both partners are feeling the same doubt and hesitance?  Is each of them supposed to be telling him/herself that it’s for the benefit of the other, when the other is passing the same buck?

My father’s advice was both shocking and revelatory. It went against the grain of today’s “Walmart philosophy”, which is if it doesn’t make you happy, you can take it back and get a new one.

Way to make human relations transactional, buddy.  That’s just what I always say to myself: “If I’m not crazy about this partner, I’ll just exchange them at the store.”  Surely there’s some middle ground between resigned selfless devotion and Wal-Mart?  What if, say, people cared about the mutual interest of themselves and their partners, i.e., having a positive, fulfilling relationship?  Does this really require transferring the entire purpose of the marriage to your partner alone?  Moreover, does it really have anything to do with a marriage license?

No, a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love — their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, “What’s in it for me?” while Love asks, “What can I give?”

Again, this sounds like a very nice sentiment, and in some ways it really is.  I agree that treating the other kindly and lovingly is a crucial and beautiful and enjoyable part of love.  But there is a limit, somewhere, where free giving becomes sacrifice.  And trust me, I’ve been a martyr to my relationships.  It’s not pretty.  It can’t make either of you happy unless you’re with an utter narcissist and are yourself immune to resentment.  Encouraging people to remove themselves from the equation entirely is a recipe for codependency and emotional abuse.

Some time ago, my wife showed me what it means to love selflessly. For many months, my heart had been hardening … I was callous. I was selfish.

But instead of matching my selfishness, Kim did something beyond wonderful — she showed an outpouring of love. Laying aside all of the pain and anguish I had caused her, she lovingly took me in her arms and soothed my soul.

The kind, morally upright action of a good partner.  But what if he remained “callous” and “selfish” indefinitely?  What if this “fear and resentment” progressed to emotional, verbal, physical abuse?  If a person is deliberately blocking out self-interest, where is the line to be drawn between giving, and being used?

In sum, I want to give this article the benefit of the doubt and say that it probably doesn’t mean exactly what it says.  The author likely wasn’t really thinking, “I don’t get any happiness from my marriage, but it’s only for my wife anyway, and so that we can have a socially legitimate family with kids and in-laws.  If I didn’t marry her, I’d forgo all of that, and also break her heart because golly marriage would make HER happy!”

No, I imagine he was probably thinking about loving his wife and not treating her like shit, and about having resolved his temporary cold feet.  He was probably writing from the hip and not planning to deconstruct any of his ideas.  The trouble is that when you write, you always offer your own experience to your reader.  This blogger is setting himself up as a worthy example (at least, ever since his wife cured him of selfishness) via a description of an extreme and untenable relationship ethic. 

I have zero problem with people expressing controversial ideas, but they have a responsibility to think through the implications of what they say and, if necessary, clarify some responses to criticisms.  And on that count, sweet-sounding or not, Smith’s blog post fails utterly.