Six subtle forms of abuse and what to do about them

The first step toward escaping an abusive relationship is to recognize that you’re in one.  The second is to realize that you deserve and can have better.  To that end, here are some characteristics, drawing on my own experience, that should help alert you to the possibility that you are being emotionally and verbally abused.

1) “Negging”

“Negging” has emerged as one among many despicable PUA techniques.  The aggressor, generally male, gives a left-handed compliment such as “You look pretty good for your size,” or “You’d be cute if you wore more makeup.”  But this technique isn’t limited to PUAs.  Abusive partners often continue to “neg” their victims throughout the relationship, as a means of keeping his or her confidence and self-esteem too low to consider deserving a better relationship.  An example is when my ex-husband told me, “Admit it, you’re not that great.  You know people don’t find you attractive, but you never do anything to make yourself attractive.  Like those beige granny bras you wear.”  Nor does this necessarily have to apply to physical qualities.  It could also take the form of “That’s an okay degree, but it’s not from as good a school as mine” or “You’d be more attractive if you weren’t such a nerd.”  As with many things abusers do, these comments are designed to 1) increase their control over every aspect of your life, including how you look; and 2) to make you feel so self-deprecating and unworthy that you will meekly accept this control.  A supportive partner encourages healthy body image and high self-esteem.  An abusive one consistently tears you down.

2) Guilt-tripping you when you assert yourself

When you calmly and reasonably ask for something you need or criticize your partner’s behavior, do they listen and take to heart what you say, even if they disagree?  Or do they immediately become angry and accuse you of being “controlling,” “manipulative” or “selfish?”  Or perhaps they react with instant self-pity– “You’re so unfair!  I can never do anything right!  I don’t know why you even stay with me!”– implicitly demanding that you switch from self-advocacy to playing mother hen and soothing their fragile ego.  Often, you feel like you have to apologize for being unhappy.  Now, there have been times when I’ve felt ashamed and even cried about problems my partner had with me, but I have always tried nonetheless to take responsibility for my actions, apologize, and express an intent to do better.  It’s reasonable to feel sad when you’ve inadvertently made someone you love unhappy.  It’s NOT reasonable to connivingly turn the tables so that all the focus is on what you feel and not at all on your partner’s concerns.

3) Establishing a complex set of rules that you can never quite live up to

“Don’t slurp your tea like that.”  “Don’t use so much toothpaste.”  “Don’t talk to that friend of yours.” “Call me at this time every day, no matter what.” “Don’t say ‘needs washed,’ you sound stupid.”  “Don’t drink Pepsi with your cheese and crackers, experts say that’s disgusting.”  And on and on.  An abuser wants an infinite amount of control over your life, so for every hoop you jump through trying to make them happy, ten more will instantly appear, and your performance will still, always, be considered insufficient.  There will be rules you are supposed to know about without them ever being spoken.  There will be rules about things that are no one’s business but your own.  So many rules that your existence will feel like a pit of quicksand in which the more you struggle to stay afloat, the stronger will be the force pulling you down and crushing you.  Your abuser may offer elaborate explanations for these rules, excusing their ridiculous nature with tails of trauma from childhood, bad memories of other relationships, and hypersensitivity.  There is nothing wrong with speaking up about something your partner does that seriously bugs you and asking them to change it, but you need to recognize boundaries of personal freedom and not set out hurdles according to your every whim just to trip up your victim and keep them in line.

4) Withdrawing affection and “privileges” to control you

I was once locked out of my own house for having a PAP smear done without my husband in attendance.  Another time, he wouldn’t visit me until I fell in line with his political philosophy.  Another partner refused to kiss me or hold my hand unless I cried and begged for forgiveness for all the mistakes I had, of course, made, in his estimation– often having to guess at what those mistakes were, because “If you have to ask, then I don’t want to tell you.”  These behaviors are simply unacceptable.  They are manipulative and cruel.  They are, again, designed to provide leverage for the abuser to control every aspect of your life.  If they can’t get what they want by demanding and guilt-tripping, they’ll take it by force.

5) Spreading horror stories about you to other people

This is bad enough when your partner decides to cuss you out to their own friends and family, telling only their side of the story, perhaps embellished with out-and-out lies, in order to shame you with public scorn.  It’s worse when they start doing the same with your family and friends, talking to them behind your back, sharing your confidential information and making you sound like the worst person in the world.  The purpose of this behavior is to isolate you, and to further lower your self-esteem by making it seem as though the whole world shares your abuser’s low opinion of you, so that you will believe you have no one to turn to and should be thankful your abuser stays with you at all.  Isolation and low self-esteem are meant to make you desperate enough to cling to your abuser through thick and thin– mostly thin and thinner.

6) Getting out-of-control angry during disagreements

A discussion can get pretty heated and emotional without turning abusive.  But when swearing and name-calling starts (“You bitch!”  “You stupid cunt!”  “Fuck you!”) a line has been crossed.  So, too, if your partner displays ANY signs or threats of physical violence, whether it’s toward you, another person, an animal, themselves, or even an inanimate object.  It is NOT YOUR FAULT that an abuser gets enraged.  It is due to their own fucked up psychology that prevents them from being rational and empathetic.  Even if you really were the lousy partner they make you out to be, there is simply no excuse for verbal or physical violence.  If they are that desperately unhappy, the thing for them to do is not to hurt you, but to simply walk out the door and maybe never come back.  Which is exactly what you should do if anyone ever treats you this way.

If one or more of these red flags applies to your relationship, here is what you should do:

1) Run.

2) Run fast.

3) Run far.

4) Don’t look back.

5) Lock the door behind you.

That’s really all there is to it.  I’ve never seen an abuser change their stripes and make good on their apologies and promises.  You don’t need to take a chance on whether they will hurt you the same way again, or even worse.  If you still care about them, then wish them the best as you run.  The hell.  Away.

Autism and friendship

I wrote recently about how disabilities, and autism in particular, can affect romantic relationships.  So I thought it was time to address the related topic of how being an autist has affected my ability to form and maintain friendships.  I’ll focus on adult friendships here, because I think they are of a fundamentally different nature from childhood ones.  I may blog more in the future about my experiences as a child.

As a teenager, I was a confirmed loner.  I simply lacked the skills to form even the most basic of friendship bonds, and most of the time I wasn’t really interested in spending time with others, anyway.  But I realized that I needed to be able to relate to people better to succeed in life, and also to avoid humiliating myself, which has always been one of my biggest fears, perhaps because it’s happened so many times.  I did get lonely, and more than that, I desired approval– validition– confirmation that I wasn’t as unlovable as I felt.  So I devoted myself, over the course of several years, to watching and learning, and by my early twenties, I had developed enough skills that I was able to engage in relatively standard ways– up to a point.

Shortly after my son was born, I moved to a new city, and via receiving breastfeeding counseling and taking my son to a toy lending library, I encountered some other parents with values similar to my own.  I was invited to a support group, a playgroup, and several birthday parties, and this led on to occasional one-on-one playdates.  Being a parent greased the wheels:  We had something designated acceptable and mutually interesting to talk about, and when there was an awkward silence because I was lost, it was easy to redirect attention to something the kids were doing.

Nevertheless, such socializing remained a nerve wracking and exhausting experience for me.  I looked forward to it, but I also dreaded it.  It was hard to remember what things were rude or too blunt to say; how often to nod, smile and say “uh-huh” to show that I was listening; how much it was okay to talk about my special interests without seeming weird; when it was time to talk without interrupting.  And I never did get the hang of eye contact (and still never have.)  If I tried, I simply stared, which made it appear I was being creepy or romantically interested, and it made me uncomfortable anyway, so I just gave up on that part.

Partly because of these difficulties, I never really considered my “mommy friends” to be real friends– more like acquaintances.  We spent time together because of two factors: our childrens’ ages and our parenting style.  I liked some of them a lot and wished I could get to know them better, but I didn’t know how, and frankly, they didn’t show any interest or make any effort, so I felt that I would be imposing on them if I tried.

In some cases, this was really deeply hurtful.  In one case, I met two women at the same time as they met each other.  I chatted with each of them, and I went on to spend time with both.  I really liked both of them.  However, it was clear that they “hit it off” with each other far more than they ever did with me.  It went on that while I would have the occasional playdate with either of them, they became very, very close.  I knew this because I heard each of them talk about the other, and because I was privy to their Facebook interactions.  They went for impromptu walks together.  They called each other on the phone just to talk, and talked about their feelings.  They invited each other to family gatherings.  They talked openly about how much they “loved” each other.  (Note, this was a platonic relationship; both were involved with members of the opposite sex.)

I never did any of these things with either of them.  I wanted to.  But I didn’t, and I didn’t know how.  I cried about it.  I drank because of it.  And I felt pathetic for doing both.  I didn’t know when it was and wasn’t okay to call someone, or what to say if I did.  I didn’t think it would be okay for me to talk to them about my feelings, because they didn’t with me.  If I messaged them and suggested a walk or lunch on the same day or the next day, they invariably had something else planned (or said they did.)

At one point, I found out on Facebook that they were having a crafts group with several other mutual acquaintances.  Now, I was and am one of the most crafty (in the sense of making crafts, not of being manipulative) people I know, and I knew that they knew this because I would make things to give to them.  Yet they never invited me to this group, and I was at a loss as to what to do.  Could I invite myself?  Was there any point, if they clearly didn’t want me there?  I was devastated, not so much by not getting to go but by feeling left out and unwanted.  I blamed myself– probably rightly?  maybe not?  I don’t know even now– for being awkward and unlikeable.  It seemed like a confirmation of the way I’d judged myself all my life.

One of the things about autism is that it doesn’t just make you awkward, it makes it impossible for you to know what other people are thinking.  You spend all your time wishing fervently that people would just tell you what they want from you.  I constantly thought, “What exactly am I doing wrong?  Why won’t they just tell me if I’m being rude or inappropriate?  Or if they just don’t like me that much?”  I expect they were sending out plenty of cues that I just didn’t have the capacity to read– my experience with watching, mimicking and practicing had taught me how to go through the motions, but not really how to understand the content.

After that experience, I distanced myself further from my “mommy friends,” because I felt alienated and unwanted.  For several years, I really didn’t have any friends at all.  I never saw or talked to anyone except family and my abusive romantic partner.  Then I went back to college and entered a new relationship, and both of these introduced me to new people who seemed to have some interest in spending time with me.  By this point, I’d further developed my skills; I understood roughly how to “hang out” and play video games or make some somewhat stilted small talk.  I finally managed to accumulate a handful of people I’d call, as the Brits might, “mates,” if not close friends, and interacting regularly with them allowed me to relax some, be myself a bit, and feel like we shared an actual connection.

That’s basically where I am now.  But I’ve continued to experience difficulty and disappointment.  I generally find that people do not take the initiative to spend time with me or call me, and that I must therefore always do so; even when I do, I frequently fail to get any response.  In some cases, I’ve interacted fairly regularly with a person, only to have them suddenly stop responding at all, or blow me off every time.  This confuses me.  Again, I am left wondering, am I doing something wrong?  Do they really not like me that much?  My best friend, my former Person of Interest, gets irritated when I worry about this, and tells me, “That’s just how friendships are.  It takes hard work, and most people don’t put in the effort.”  Okay, so if that’s the case, how do they ever manage to spend time with people other than me?  How do I develop a close enough bond that they will actually think of reaching out to me of their own accord?  How can I be sure that the problem isn’t actually that I’m screwing up in some way?

So my message to fellow autists is, keep trying, and things will get better; they won’t be perfect, but don’t feel alone when it doesn’t always work out or you have trouble making and keeping the friendships you’d like.  It’s not your fault that you can’t read people.  It doesn’t make you a bad or worthless person if you do get rejected, or think you are.  There are loads of us out here who feel the same.

And to the neurotypicals who care about autists, please, just be straight with us.  If we’re acting inappropriately or just in a way you don’t like, say so– not in a mean way, mind you, but with kindness and care.  Interpersonal relationships are harder for us than you can know, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want them and want your approval.  Maybe take the time and put out the extra effort to let us know if you do want us around, because otherwise, we’ll likely assume you don’t.  Chances are we’ve been hurt a lot, and when you just exclude or ignore us without giving us a reason, we really don’t understand why.

Disabilities and dating

I recently (7 months ago) went through the most difficult breakup of my life.  It was, and still is, so hard for many reasons, not least of which was that I was still head over heels about Person of Interest when I broke things off, but a major one of which also relates to my disabilities.

Anyone who knows anything about autism probably realizes that for autists, entering the dating scene, or any romantic interaction from flirting to sex, is a steep uphill climb.  Among the many roadblocks we face are:

1) Cluelessness about body language.  This is a definite disadvantage, since much (maybe most?) of flirting takes place via this medium.  I know when someone is interested in me if they repeatedly comment on my appearance or explicitly ask me out, but this mainly happens with creepy dudes in parking lots.  If people are sending me signals through gaze, tone of voice, or other more subtle cues, I am oblivious, and will assume they are uninterested.

2) Difficulty with daily functioning.  It’s hard to feel like you could ever be attractive when you have trouble making it to appointments, checking your mail, returning phone calls, attending classes or work, eating a balanced diet, and keeping up with self-care.  When you’re disabled, people around you begin to treat you like an incompetent child because of your different needs, and it’s easy to internalize this paternalism.  Most people are looking for an equal partner, and it’s sometimes hard to envision how you can fulfill that role when it’s difficult even managing your own life.  Of course, autists and other people with disabilities have plenty to contribute to a relationship and the world in general, but especially since we aren’t often taught that message, that doesn’t mean being disabled doesn’t affect our self esteem.

3) Fear of rejection.  A combination of my first two points enhances the indefatigability of the third.  When you assume that you are unattractive to others both because of your nature and because you can’t perceive positive reactions, each interaction assumes higher stakes.  It can be rare to find a person you really like and who you think might like you, so the idea of having your courageous advances rebuffed can be hard to take– it’s easy to assume you might never find another good dating candidate, or at least not for a very long time.  Raising the stakes makes it all the less likely that you’ll summon what social skills you’ve learned and let them know how you feel.  (In my case, this difficulty has been reinforced by the fact that my the conditions of my breakup were less than self-esteem-boosting.)

4) Nitpickiness.  People with autism are famously reluctant to change the tried-and-true methods and routines that have helped us cope with the world so far.  Having things a specific way comforts and insulates us.  If we’re lucky, we find someone very accommodating; otherwise, in long-term relationships, we gradually adjust our routines to incorporate the needs of our partners.  Either way, both readjusting to single life and opening ourselves to the demands of a new relationship, with the quirks and desires of another complex human being whom we don’t know that well yet, can be cause for extreme distress.  And once you have gotten used to being alone again, connecting with someone new can seem all the more daunting and disruptive.

5) Sensory and intimacy issues.  Personally, I really enjoy cuddling and closeness, but can’t stand abrupt, aggressive displays of affection.  Many people with autism find that pressure is soothing, while a light touch is uncomfortable.  In addition, more autists, especially women, than neurotypicals describe themselves as being on the asexuality spectrum.  Whatever the particulars are of a given autist’s sensory differences and intimate preferences, it’s assured that there will be more than a little awkwardness when getting physically close at first.  Anticipating this bump in the road deters pursuing romantic relationships.

I’m sure there are other potential complications that I’m missing, but it should be clear by now that dating while disabled is no easy matter.  And thus the extra shoe thrown into the machinery of my breakup:  I question constantly, what will my life be like from here on out?  Will I ever find another person I feel this attracted to, let alone with whom I can stand to spend my hours?  Will anyone ever show interest in me again?

So, for seven months, I convinced myself that this was the end of my romantic and sexual life.  I became totally okay with the idea of being celibate, dedicated to my other goals, not dependent on anyone.  And then– after many odd conversations with my ex-partner and best friend about my attractiveness, desirability, prospects and needs– I began to realize that I was interested in another person.

I am still struggling with this realization, and trying to determine whether the best course of action is to stick with my celibacy plans and trust that this, too, shall pass, or to pursue this attraction at risk of rejection and further hurt.  I can’t even answer this complex and painful question for myself, let alone any other disabled people, but I know that whatever path I choose, it’s undeniable that being an autist has played a crucial role in my decision.  I only hope that one day the world will be supportive and accommodating enough that the impact of these difficulties will lessen, and more and more people with autism and other disabilities will be able to freely pursue romantic relationships if that’s what they desire.

Spousal rape

My impression is that in most people’s minds, “rape” has two specific connotations:  as date rape by someone the victim barely knows, or as a violent attack by a predatory stranger.  Rarely do I see public acknowledgment of another very serious situation: spousal rape.

What limited discussion I have seen about spousal rape– or, more accurately, partner rape– has focused on whether it is in fact “real.”  The majority, or at least a significant proportion, of opinions are that when people are married (or in a long-term relationship) sex is a right, a given, a duty.  Thus the stereotype of one partner needing an excuse, like a headache, for not wanting sex, rather than being free to say that they just don’t want it right now.  To deny your partner sex is to let them down, and it’s presumed that they would be– and for good reason– upset with you as a result.

Let’s be clear:  There is absolutely no situation in which it is remotely acceptable for someone to threaten, bargain or guilt-trip another into intimacy.  Not on a date, and not in a relationship.  To imply that there is such a situation is to deny and yet condone the misery, humiliation and trauma suffered by survivors of partner rape.  If you don’t believe me about the strength of those feelings, listen to my own story.  Trigger warning for sexual abuse, self-harm.

My husband, who was my first partner and with whom I stayed for seven years, was always sexually aggressive and manipulative.  He pressured me into having sex early on in our relationship, when I was in my mid-teens, and to hide it from my parents, who for better or worse were not particularly liberal on the subject. He insisted on having sex in situations that made me very uncomfortable– in the prop room of the theater building where we went to college, for example.  Throughout, I never had any emotional or physical pleasure from any of our intimacy.

After I moved in with him at 17 (when he was 20) things only got worse.  He started to pressure me to let him do things to me that were very painful and humiliating.  At times, I would cry during sex, and he would ignore me and continue with whatever he felt like doing.  I started cutting myself so deep that I should have had stitches, and ended up with terrible scars.

Because he had threatened to kill me twice before, as well as to kill my beloved cat, and had physically attacked me, slapping me, grabbing me, once slamming my head against a wall, once dislocating my jaw, I had no reason to think that if I denied him he wouldn’t hurt me.  As pathetic as it sounds, I was just as afraid of losing him, since, as often happens in abusive relationships, I had centered my whole life around him.  So the threat to me was real, immediate and implied, if not explicit.  In addition, he took advantage of me twice while I was drunk and passed out, or nearly so, and unable to resist.

Later, when we had separated, I had no choice but to move back in with him for several months.  During that time, he raped me at least 5 times.  I made it clear both in the moment and in general that I did not want to be intimate in any way, but he just kept pressuring and touching and insisting.  At one point he threatened and tried to commit suicide if I wouldn’t be in a relationship with him.  So again, there was a clear threat looming over me as he continually pushed me toward sex.  At one point he even offered to pay me $1000 for intercourse.

There should be absolutely no question, no ambivalence, no doubt that what happened to me “counts” as rape.  In essence, partner rape means taking advantage of a relationship that’s meant to be about trust, love and caring to impose an absolute demand on another person, regardless of how much it harms them.

The experience shattered me.  I felt disgusting, sickened, frightened and violated.  I couldn’t get myself clean enough.  It was around this time that I began again to have horrifying nightmares that had stopped for some time beforehand, while we were separated.  I would wake up screaming and punching the air or the wall.  My skin crawled all the time and I threw up compulsively.  I panicked when I knew he was coming home from work, because of what he might do to me.  I wished he would die, and I considered– and almost succeeded in– killing myself, putting myself in a coma for days after overdosing on several medications.

There is nothing in the world that justifies damaging and tormenting another living being in that way.  Period.  The idea that there is ever a right to sex, that sex can ever be an obligation, is no different from chimpanzees who beat their mates with sticks to force their desire.  It is an animal urge that has no place in society.  Partner rape is a crime and a severely traumatizing experience, and defending it is almost as inexcusable as doing it.

Breakup

There is a fine line between “I miss you because you are gone” and “I miss you because you aren’t coming back.”  Between “Your stuff is cluttering my living room” and “Your stuff is the last thing I have of you” and the realization of how empty everything will be without that fucking clutter.

That’s the point where you can’t go back.  When you miss the clutter and the bickering and the lying, sighing, back to back in bed unhappy, you know it’s done.  It only takes a moment to yearn for what you wouldn’t notice being gone if you knew it was going to come back, and that moment is when it all happens.

Loneliness is instant gratification when you break up and you still love someone.  You don’t have to wait and miss them on their birthday or your anniversary or the day of the week when you first had breakfast together.  Why not do it now instead, eat it fresh, raw?

When massive stars run out of fuel, first they bloat, as if trying to make up for something.  Their tinier, hotter companions steal from them, their very matter, their selves, twisting in a gravitational knot, until BOOM the whole thing ends with a comic book explosion and a neutron star spinning itself dizzy.  Important things destroy the fabric of the universe and build it again, but in the end, the stars will wink out and stillness will fall on us all.

Whenever you have slept with someone for years, and are left alone in bed, there is a hollow, and some night, no matter how hard you try, you will roll into it.  This is one of the saddest feelings in the world.  Waking up there with empty arms.  It hurts down to your marrow.

So you sleep on the couch with the lights on and no matter what you do you spend hour on hour wading through the swamp of your misery, and once in a while you scoop a cent from the water, a wish that you threw in a long time ago.  There is so much to cash in, but first, so much to lose.

Love and monsters

Anyone who’s spent a lot of time being treated for mental illness likely shares my urge to puke when the word “support” comes up.

“So who do you have for support in your life right now?”

“Please rate the quality of your support system on a scale of 1-5.”

“Remember to call a support person and have them stay with you if you’re scared.”

… And a lot people who suffer from severe mental illness, which is, after all, destructive in part because of its isolation, are probably joining me in being all like, yeah, right.  It’s like when you’re talking to a rich person and you complain about the weather and they suggest you cope by buying a vacation home in an exotic locale.  I mean, it’s good advice, right?

What hardly anyone talks about, while they seem so keen on reminding you that you don’t have one, is how to actually build a “support system.”  Or how to use one when you’ve got it.

It’s not as simple, after all, as making and keeping friends might be when you’re well.  (I wouldn’t really know about the later part, but I have my educated guess.)  Even if you were once more functional and were close to people then (and for many people, that’s not the case) things change when you are mentally ill.  Friendship becomes a balancing act that seems almost impossible at times.

If you’re sufficiently insightful, you may feel that you always have to watch yourself to ensure you’re not a “bucket dipper,” someone who takes far more than they give, and whom people only consent to be around out of pity.  If you have mood problems, you have to figure out how you will keep your friends when you get manic and out of control, or depressed and withdrawn and glum.  If you have anxiety, you have to be worried about putting yourself in situations that will trigger you.  It’s easy for those sorts of issues to take the fun out of things.

People have their own lives.  If you’re in crisis or just want to talk to someone, what are the chances they’ll be available at that time, and do you have any right to expect or even ask that of them?  Should you call them up a week in advance and ask them to schedule a couple of hours for you on, say, Tuesday morning because you think you might be feeling crappy then?  What exactly are the logistics supposed to be here?

And perhaps people who speak so flippantly about “support” don’t comprehend what it’s like to openly talk about thoughts or exhibit behaviors that will inevitably seem strange and irrational.  As an example, I’ll hand over a pair of my shoes from today to step into for a moment.  (It’s not a gift I give easily, so y’all better send me some presents.  No puppies and/or ponies please.) 

Say you’re having a rough time, you haven’t slept more than a few hours total in six days.  You decide you want a smoke but don’t want to get dressed, so you stand, in your tee shirt and underpants, in your balcony doorway and blow the smoke out the door.  Just as you’re finishing your cigarette, two young women walk down the block, look up at you and start pointing at you and laughing uproariously.  Not understanding why you’re funny but still mortified, you look down at them and accidentally meet the eyes of one.  She screams with laughter, slaps her friend on the shoulder, and shrieks, “Stare as scary as motherfuckin’ steel!” and then they continue down the street.

You put out your cigarette and step back inside and draw the curtains.  Your vision is blurry, your heart is racing unsteadily right behind your uvula, and you feel faint and sick to your stomach.  You’re sure that they’re still talking and laughing about you as they walk on, and that later they will tell all their friends about how stupid and ridiculous you are.  You keep hearing their words echo over and over in your head, and you can’t forgive yourself for what an idiot you’ve made of yourself, because it just goes to show what a worthless person you are.  You resolve not to go outside for the rest of the day because they might still be out there and will be horrible again.

But now you can’t stop thinking about it.  You feel completely shaken up.  Your ears are ringing and your hands are trembling.  If those two normal-looking strangers couldn’t help cracking up and taunting you, then what must people be saying who know you better, who know all the other foolish, subhuman things you do and say?  You’re probably the laughing stock of the town.  All those times you’ve thought you heard people laughing at you, you weren’t just being silly about it, they actually were.  This is proof.  Now you know.

Eventually the thoughts tearing apart your brain and the sensations in your body become too much, and you end up in a fetal position on the couch pressing your palms into your eyes, rocking and whimpering.  You really wish you could have a drink or two, but you can’t.  You try desperately to remember the techniques that are supposed to help, telling yourself it’s not you, it’s your brain chemistry, it’s not helpful, etc.  But you are unable to refocus to another activity, because you are at a loss to think of anything you would actually enjoy doing and you don’t know what the point is, all you want is to stop feeling so bad.  You turn on the TV and turn it up loud, but your mind just keeps tuning it out and letting the thoughts rampage through again, no matter how many times you shoo them away or try to ignore them.  You stay curled up and panicking until your mind gets so exhausted that you just shut down and can’t think or do anything for quite a while.

Now.  If that happened to you, how many people would you feel comfortable calling for “support,” and what would you say to them?  Would you recount what happened and how you acted?  Would you tell them about the thoughts?  Or would you be too afraid that you’d sound childish, petty, pathetic and, well, crazy?  What would you expect them to say?  Would you ask them to tell you whether people make fun of you?  Would you believe them if they did?

And still moreso– if you were in the midst of that kind of thoughts and feelings and you felt scared and wanted someone to be with you, how many people in your life would you want to see you that way?  Incoherent, blubbering, wretched, like a two-year-old having a temper tantrum.  And again, what would they do?  Do you even know what you’d want them to do? 

How would you feel afterward– needy, guilty, ashamed?  What will they think of you?  Will they ever be able to respect you and enjoy your company after knowing how you really are?  Perhaps you might think of the song Lean on Me, and then realize that actually, your well friends are very unlikely to ever need to lean on you in the same way.

Those are all very real fears, concerns and confusions that have to be addressed if you seek support.  And if dealing with it once sounds difficult– what if your life was full of similar incidents, all the time?

Of course, I don’t want to belittle the fact that some mentally ill people do have a group of close friends and family members to whom they feel comfortable turning in distress.  That’s wonderful, and they are very fortunate.  But if you talk to as many mentally ill people as I have, I think you will come away with an accurate impression that we tend to be chronically, painfully lonely.

And it’s really nobody’s fault.  It’s not the fault of ill people for being ill, but while many mentally healthy people are indeed intolerant and unsympathetic, there are also many who are kind and understanding, and it’s not their fault either.  It’s not their “fault” for having functional minds and lives, it’s simply their good fortune, and it can make their presence and insights invaluable to those of us struggling with our own brains.  It makes no sense to be resentful or critical.*  It’s possible to have friends you really care about, and who care about you, without this necessarily making a functional support system.

There will always be people with and without mental illnesses, and the divide between them will always be difficult to cross.  However, mental health care could be drastically improved by placing more clinical emphasis on creating, maintaining and utilizing social supports, rather than simply asking about them.  And that also doesn’t mean teaching people to give a firm handshake and [pretend to] look people in the eye and then tell them to run along and play with the other kiddies, perhaps by joining a club they’re interested in.  Connecting with others is a learned skill that’s really, really hard work when you’re mentally ill; asking for and accepting support even moreso; it needs to be addressed as a serious, in-depth and crucial part of any psychiatric care.

Come on, mental health professionals, if professionals you are.  What are all those letters after your names for if you can’t give us better help than a kindergarten teacher could offer?  You can do better, and we need you to.

* From experience, I am wary of friendships or relationships between two people with severe mental illness.  Perhaps sometimes it works, but all I’ve seen of it, with myself and others, is a parade of triggers and escalations.  For example, a bipolar person (no, not headcheese) driving home from work at 85mph so that she can talk her psychotic friend out of killing himself.  If we were negative numbers, when we got together we’d add, not multiply.  So while it may seem logical that people with mental illness should stick together, in my opinion it’s not the basis of a healthy “support system.”

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.