(Ordinary Angels – Karyn Williams)
I have experienced a lot of side-lining, exclusion, and isolation in life. I was someone who really only had circumstantial friends until one particular person changed that in high school. I will be the first to admit that although I have found my voice, everyone else had enough of a head start that I still feel lost in the world of friendship. Making and keeping friends is something that I still approach tentatively. I strongly desire close friends, but don’t really know how to obtain them. I don’t want to impose on people, offend people, or bother anyone…I don’t want to be weird and awkward when I’m trying to be friendly. I am so thankful for the people I do have as friends, and many of them go far beyond the call of duty to love on me, but I wish I were better at the friendship game. I’ve always expressed interest in a guidebook for communication skills, but I do realize that it isn’t practical or probably even possible to create a comprehensive book for that…plus even if it did exist it would have way more words than I would probably be able to sit still long enough to read, and it would be so overwhelming that IDK if I’d even see it as worthwhile when I can stumble my way through figuring things out without all that work…
So yeah, all that to say I am used to being an unintentional loner, but grief is a profoundly isolating experience. It is like being inside a translucent hamster ball trying to understand the blurry shapes and fuzzy sounds and trying to interact with a world that you can’t really control or even touch while watching everyone else walk around in complete freedom. No one can really understand what it is like to be trapped in that ball and it is so stuck closed that no one can really free you from the prison of grief. It’s just you and the hard walls around you. The walls keep the world out and you in so your pain can’t hurt anyone else, but you keep running into those hard walls, and it gets frustrating that you can’t escape, and really without control your ball is also running into things.
My grief is getting a little better. It still hurts, and I still cry sometimes, but I am learning to ignore it. Tuesday since I was driving about 500 miles, I had a lot of driving time…driving all day can be less than ideal since there is not a lot I can do to entertain myself which means I am alone with my thoughts for a long time without much in the way of distraction…sure, I have the radio and a notebook in my lap, but that is often not enough. We aren’t going to talk about how dangerous driving can be when deep in the emotional pit, but yeah, driving can definitely underline the pain in life. And that is what emphasized how much progress I’ve made. Sure, by the afternoon I definitely had cried, but I actually did pretty well in the morning. I was annoyed when I realized one of the unmarked roads a few miles ago was the one I should have turned on and I was a little frustrated when my phone told me I should go 10 miles south then make a U-turn and go north when I could have just gone north in the first place, but it wasn’t that big of a deal (and on that second one, I should have just followed the directions I wrote down, but I wanted to believe that my phone was taking me on a shortcut…)…I made it.
I heard a lot of really awesome things on the radio. One of them is that when you’ve been supporting someone and they become able to be responsible for themselves, you don’t let go of them, you let go of control, and you don’t step out their life, you step out of their way. I really liked that. I have some friends who have done that well. When I am falling I might need help, but if once you have caught me you just notice that I am not in free fall anymore and let go and don’t help me get my own footing then I very well may start crashing down the mountain again. Grabbing me and letting go gives me hope for a minute, but it’s a false hope that doesn’t really change anything if I still don’t have any way of clinging to the mountain after you let go. Friends who leave me a rope, connecting me to the top in case I need it again, giving me space to climb but not be totally alone are so valuable…and leaving the rope out isn’t just hey let me know what you need. That is an awesome start that I really appreciate, but when I am deep in grief, it is really hard to figure out what I need. Let me know if you need anything is better, but still not totally there…it takes away the required need to know what I need, but leaves behind an implied fill-in-the-blank requirement that someone like me is usually going to not ask at all rather than leave the line blank. It also puts the responsibility on me to ask, and when I am using all the mental energy I have into keeping up with the more primitive responsibilities of life like eating, going to bed, and dressing myself, clearly that ask is beyond my every day ability. While it might be a frustrating approach when what used to be an easy answer (more skittles) is no longer a reliable solution since at times I wasn’t even eating candy, the best thing anyone can do if you really want to do something tangible is to tell me what you want to do and find out whether it would be helpful or just add more stress. Side note also that you should probably make sure that what you are offering is something you actually have the ability to make happen, because when you are already living minute to minute holding on for one more minute at a time, the disappointment of something that should be of marginal importance can be magnified. For me anyway, something tangible that was really helpful was people texting or otherwise contacting me even just liking a post on facebook in a way that didn’t require a response so I didn’t have to feel rude or extra stress if coming up with words to respond was way over my head, but I could still have the benefit of connection and someone reaching in to my lonely world. I eventually figured out how to ask for that, but I think I kinda failed on the follow up to make it happen…but anyway, I recently saw on one of the sites I follow a comment along these same lines…side note that everyone is different…the person in the quote below only cried like three times a day, and for a long time I cried pretty much any time I was alone and sometimes even if I wasn’t alone…although I suppose some days three might be right because that could also mean I only stopped crying twice…there were and are a lot of tears shed in my life…on a less surface level, for me, surprises are not really my thing, so while I might appreciate you just showing up, it would be more meaningful to me if you asked me first is it okay if you come over. If my world feels out of control, then even more than ever I want to feel involved in the choice. I might not have the mental capacity to actually choose, but at least letting me rubber stamp your decision is good for me…and okay, let’s be honest, I might be making bad choices because I don’t have the ability to reason logically, and I might be refusing help I might need because shaking my head no is the only control I can have in the world…but I might also be making a different decision than what you want for me because I am scared and because I don’t want to burden more people and because I learned shame and most importantly because back in March and April and May I knew I wasn’t supposed to do anything that could put graduation at risk and I knew that without full executive function I could easily say too much and break the rules by sharing about the abuse, and so some things just weren’t safe options for me. Yes I needed to talk, but no, I wasn’t going to let my guard down.
Back to the point, I will also be the first to admit that it is probably hard for people to know if they should leave the rope out for me, because I am protective of other people and don’t want to burden them so to the extent it is possible I tend to pretend I am okay so they don’t have to feel bad for me or feel pressured to do more than is comfortable for them, and I am used to having to figure things out on my own while pretending everything is fine…Unfortunately, I’ve had way more experience with that than I would have ever liked to have. I went into third year doing reasonably well. I really did at that point primarily just need a steady accountability partner, which is another reason it didn’t seem like THAT big of a deal to be working with someone bad. I’d been bullied so much in the past that working with a bully didn’t seem like a problem. Yeah, I was wrong. It was a gradual enough change that I didn’t really notice it much myself and blamed what I did notice on other (moderately legitimate) circumstances (like new classes, my first apartment, etc) even though other people did notice that I had changed even though I wasn’t talking about what was going on. Looking back, by the end of third year I was probably in crisis mode more often than I wasn’t. Things that would have made me cringe and then go back to normal life became situations that threw me into a day or more of freaking out. I couldn’t handle the stress of the abuse and the germophobia grew into what I guess was maybe partly a mental distraction to take away from the pain of abuse…I don’t really know a lot about how these things work, but I know that regardless of the exact mechanism at work it isn’t the expected outcome to go into counseling close to ready to “graduate” from counseling and after a year be fighting to get through the semester even if there were other things like difficult teachers and deaths to contend with at the same time. (But don’t worry, according to my abuser, I was not grieving…lol…it is kind of scary that this person is still allowed to interact with and even “counsel” (those are definitely huge exaggerated finger quotes) students on campus. I worry about the other students she is hurting. I know I was an easy target and hope because of that I got hurt worse than other people, but that is small consolation, and I don’t have any proof there aren’t other people, easy targets or not, who were being treated just as badly as me.
I work hard to remind myself it is not my fault. It is never the victim’s fault. The victim never really chose to be abused. Being an easy target doesn’t mean it was my fault. It means I was taken advantage of. Someone whose job it was to protect me instead used her power to hurt me and that is not okay. Yes, being protective of others, being excessively quiet, and being very obedient made me an easy target because there was an almost non-existent chance of me spilling the beans, especially when told not to say anything, but that doesn’t make it wrong for me to have those attributes. Being protective of others is problematic in this kind of situation, but it isn’t wrong to want protect people. I know life isn’t all about me and value other people’s experience and perspective. Being quiet is something I’ve always hated about myself, but it doesn’t make being abused my fault. It also isn’t all bad. Someone told me once that not being good at speaking makes me good at listening. I’m not always totally convinced of that because sometimes the worry about if I am going to know what to say next takes away from my listening and also without having something to say in response makes me feel like I didn’t do a good enough job listening, but it is true that I am very willing to take the time to listen when people need to talk. And as much as being obedient has hurt me, I certainly cannot endorse being disobedient to avoid being hurt…I think being disobedient would likely bring its own problems. Following the rules doesn’t make it my fault. Not knowing when or how to question authority doesn’t make me a bad person. It is easy to blame myself because like why didn’t I tattle until months after the dust had settled when tattling even a couple months sooner could have spared me and other students a lot of hurt, but I have to remember that I was doing the best with what I had. My protective personality hadn’t yet let me let go of that protection. I knew tattling would hurt my abuser. I knew it could cost her a job which would also impact her two young daughters who hadn’t done anything wrong. As far as I knew, her husband was unemployed, and the stress of living in a family without steady income wasn’t something I wanted to be responsible for in those girls. I don’t know if she treats her daughters right, but I do know she is manipulative enough that it would be hard for social services to rescue those girls if she wasn’t treating them right. Even when I was ready to let go of protecting the mom I wasn’t ready to let go of protecting the girls.
Also heard on the radio: “I entertain suicidal thoughts.” I heard that and said to myself, yes, yes I do, because I am a fun person. Those thoughts are so entertained…lol…you just wish you were as entertaining as I am. Then I started laughing which was awesome, because I had previously been crying. Also, I LOVE being graduated and free!! Now I can talk about stuff like this without risking anyone taking it out of context and taking it to someone in authority to get me in trouble. Is it stupid that I had to worry about stuff like that, umm, yes, but this was a for real problem. There were people looking for any opportunity to try to say that I wasn’t stable emotionally and should be kicked out of school or at minimum be punished for it…One of my friends asked me to think about the counselors I’d seen…I think the goal was for me to find one to go back to while I was grieving, but considering that over the course of my first 7 semesters of college I’d had sessions with 7 mental health practitioners, to me it was more of a game, and the eighth box on the grid was labeled “FREEDOM.” Not all of my experience was negative, but a lot of it was, and on top of that the last people I saw was, from my perspective, solely a check box of yes I did show up…and the last person even wrote her notes to school that way as a check box yes Wiggle Worm showed up and yes she participated on these dates. There was really no reason besides the stupid contract for me to be there. I saw it as a waste of my time that could be better spent studying and a waste of the money for the sessions and the gas to get there, particularly when I had no interest in being there and knew that even if I did need help that change wasn’t going to happen if I wasn’t interested. I think if the first person and people I saw that summer and fall after the slammed down phone had been more positive experiences that maybe my opinion could have been drastically different, but that isn’t what happened. Instead, being in counseling felt like serving my time, and I was thrilled when that was over. I do recognize that counselors can do a lot of good and I do recognize that in every occupation there are people who are bad at their job, but my experience left me with such a bitter taste that while I am happy to have a counselor as a friend and meet new ones without fearing them, I am not interested in having a counseling relationship with anyone. That ship has sailed. Besides, when you told me back then that part of my punishment for finally breaking under the abuse was going to be counseling, it is hard to in turn break the association that formed between counseling and punishment. I strongly believe that counseling should NEVER be used as a punishment. There are a lot of reasons for this belief. Among other things, it isn’t really fair to anyone involved including the counselor who might not have even done anything wrong – why should they have to use some of their time they could have used to have a session with a legitimate client to have a meeting with someone who really has no reason to be there aside from needing the sign off to stay in school? Why should they have to get into the middle of the web?