Living in the Gray: Situating Abuse in its Context

My therapist and I often talk about living in the gray areas in life. I struggle with my family’s black-and-white approaches to morality, in part because it seems hypocritical for there to be no recognition of their wrongdoings. Unhealthily, perhaps, I too sometimes take this stance as I ascribe total negative moral evaluations to myself whenever I fuck up. But I revel in the nuances of human existence and find comfort in uncovering layers of reasoning behind people’s actions.

Before this summer, I had a very black-and-white approach to abuse. Sympathetic media portrayals of even mildly, unwillingly emotionally abusive characters was enough for me to feel enraged. Fast forward to me coming to terms with the fact that I was raised in an abusive environment and everything was turned on its head.

I find it more comforting to think of the abuse as glorified bullying, but the power dynamics, chronic nature, and lasting effects make me struggle to feel comfortable calling it only that. In part, because I think part of the struggle of coming to terms with this is recognizing the fact that I still love very dearly the people who happened to be abusive. They were not abusive 24/7; they were not only defined abusers–they were also loving and self-sacrificing caregivers.

It’s important to situate that one person in particular in their context. They were responding to the trauma of a family coming to terms with a very sensational and terrifying experience. They had traumas in their childhood before I was even born. They were having to navigate cutting seemingly dangerous people out of their lives, and somehow making up for the void left by even the most absent of fathers. But they were young, scared, and felt responsible for caring for me. This doesn’t make their abusive behavior acceptable, and doesn’t make it my fault, but it does shed light on the fact that they didn’t even realize how abusive it was.

My family had physically lost me at one point, and now that I was back, they were desperate to keep me from being physically/figuratively/spiritually lost again. That’s why they enacted such stringent surveillance. That’s why they shamed and discouraged me from all sorts of uncertain or morally ambiguous pursuits. In an attempt to keep me happy and safe they demeaned and demoralized me into being a depressed and anxious child. Perhaps their behaviors would have rolled off my shoulders had I grown up secure. If, at a young age, I had been able to trust and be trusted. But all of us were vulnerable subjects—all of us were traumatized; so their behavior spiraled into abuse and I internalized all of the negativity readily, already primed to feeling unworthy given the lack of consistency in my care growing up.

As a child I reproduced this type of bullying behavior to a friend because I felt powerless in my familial relationships and thus enacted power dynamics the only way I knew how to someone who was only nominally less powerful than me (she was younger). Coming to this realization was very painful, and at some point I was unsure of whether I could live with it. I am terrified of having children because I worry about the self-perpetuating nature of trauma and how that would affect the children I’d raise. But realizing that I had already done damage to someone years ago still made me sick to my stomach.

I decided to contact this friend. She had called me out on our childhood dynamic a few years ago, and ever since then I carried that guilt with me. I apologized, but internally assumed it better if I just stay out of her life for good. Perhaps selfishly—it was because I couldn’t bear to spend time with someone I had hurt. I called her up a few weeks ago, and we chatted for a while. She talked about law school and we talked about college, and then she had to go so we hung up. There never seemed a point where it felt appropriate to bring up what I wanted to say to her. So after we hung up, I quickly sent her a text.

She sent this response:
“______, do not feel guilty for actions as a child. You did not have a sense of right and wrong at the time. I [forgave] you through my friendship over the years. It did not really affect me significantly, mainly just in the moment, but I don’t remember much anyway. I’m not perfect myself and have acted in demeaning ways as an adult. Just be the humble person you are and you will be fine.”

It made me cry. There was such genuine forgiveness in her message. It felt like a burden lifted. And I wish I could also be that forgiving, but it’s difficult. At this point, I’m on very surface-level speaking terms with my brother. I don’t speak with my father. And I avoid my mother, terrified of what she’s going to say next.

These days, I have been having a particularly hard time being generous with my family because they are so desperate to marry me off and so calloused in their evaluations of my character. I brought this up to my therapist this weekend because I had had such a horrible and damaging week because of it.

At first she was stumped. I appreciated her empathy. She told me she could viscerally feel the sensation of being stuck that I had been trying to navigate, and for a few minutes it seemed like we weren’t going to be able to get through the issue in any productive way in that session.

Then she told me to prepare myself going into interactions with my mother. I think one thing that I realized is that my mother has an almost childlike giddiness at the thought of getting me married. It’s so naïve. A woman who has been through two painful marriages is convinced that marrying me off will be the end all? It didn’t make sense. But my mother always felt responsible for not having kept me safe, even when that feeling was unfounded. Now, by doing this the “right way”, she’s convinced she’ll be absolved of her guilt. All of this is subconscious, of course. So talking through this with my therapist, she suggested that I look at this as how my mother is coping with this 20-year trauma.

It has nothing to do with me as a person. I’m absorbing her stress and her expectations, but she’s fabricating a version of myself that does not exist. That’s why I’m getting so sick. I can’t consolidate this fictional version of me with all of vastly different characteristics with who I am and yet I’m being told they’re the same person with the same end goals. But my mother doesn’t know how to get to know me; to get me married, because getting to know someone who’s so vastly different from herself is painful for her. It makes it seem as if I am unlike her on purpose—as a slight to her, as if I existed as her polar opposite to spite her and insult her caregiving.

It’s patronizing. I have to coddle the caregivers in my life. To be true to myself, I have to fucking lie through my teeth to them. It’s understandable if I can’t accept it yet, particularly when there’s so much painful stimuli from them. But I need to be generous with my family, like I’m generous with others. They deserve it. They have been through so much. It’s hard to let it go because I’m the body these practices are acted on, but they can not see their context. To see it would require them to dig up traumas they have adapted coping mechanisms for. It’s my responsibility to navigate these relationships while not absorbing the stress of misplaces and falsely constructed expectations.

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The Depression Archetype: Self-harm, and an Attempt at Engaging with Depression While at One’s Lowest

I feel somewhat unprepared to write this blog entry, and almost considered not writing it altogether, but really, writing this entry after this past week gets to the crux of what I wanted to do with this project. Please forgive me, as thoughts will surely be scattered and the writing weak.

I had a difficult week. For the most part, I think I have been coping better than I expected these past few months. I have been angry and resentful, but these are understandable responses to reconciling histories of abuse after the fact. This week had me ticking off every depression symptom you will hear in a commercial for Zoloft.

A little background to this week—my family is looking to get me married. I am 23 years-old, very insecure, very rebellious, and overweight. Ever since I was a child, I avoided learning anything that could be described as even remotely domestic. However, my family is well-loved, my brother is highly regarded in the community, and I have a pleasant personality and a good education. Regardless, my mother and I are both insecure about the process in different ways and it just becomes a beast fraught with irrationality. I fear judgment from the people asking about me, and my mother can’t articulate my good qualities being so clouded by my shortcomings.

My mother has become obsessed with marrying me off, and compounding that with her already dismissive parenting has made life at home emotionally volatile. My mother alternates rapidly between cutting down any of my genuine interests and emphasizing how desperately she wants to refashion me in her image. She oscillates between a cruel, dismissive attitude about things I find value in and an almost naïve giddiness over the prospect of finding a guy.

It’s difficult to give words to because it does cut deep. I am 23 years old. I am not about to completely change everything about myself—and even if I tried, it would take at least a few months, if not years to develop habits contrary to how I live now.

And it saddens me to admit that up until this past month, that was exactly what I planned to do. I have lived a life full of anxiety, self-loathing, and fear. At the same time, I have explored my interests, challenged myself intellectually, and befriended some amazing people. These are not things I can abandon readily. I used to think I had to. I used to think that this life was finite and at some point, I would have to suppress all of my interests because they weren’t good—I was not good—and succumb to a life of docility. But tracing the toxic behaviors in my family (and in myself) has humanized these people who so often looked down at the things I found value in. Iconoclasm is sometimes good.

However, it is certainly a process—and a painful one. And it is sickening to have to hear how flawed one is over and over again and how they must change every fundamental aspect of their personality.

I went to see one of my favorite bands the other day, and as I was getting ready and exiting the house I had to hear how worthless my interest in music was, how shameful it was, how “good girls” don’t engage in those spaces. “When are you going to stop?” As if it was something that diminished my value in some human marketplace.

I can look at that and recognize rationally that there is no moral judgment that could possible be attached to seeing live shows or playing music. But the reality is that I grew up hearing that. I was hit and shamed over it when I was a kid. It can be the most meaningless drivel in the world, but I take it to heart. I believe it, even if I don’t act on it.  And from the time and place she’s coming from—yeah, it’s scandalous. She can’t see the anachronism in her thought process.

And there is the practical aspect of it—it doesn’t “look good” in my community if girls go to shows. I can’t start talking to a guy with the intention of getting married and openly discuss this important part of my life. It’s symbolic of a larger problem. I have a political life, a social and cultural life that are more radical than what my community allows. There’s the risk any person I’m matched with will resent it, tell his mother who will then report it to community leaders and get me in trouble with religious leaders (at least symbolically in trouble). That information could find its way to my brother whose judgement is even more scathing than my mother’s. That risk is probably immensely slim, and the consequences close to nothing, but that fear has been with me for years.

My mother can be exceptionally cruel. It’s something I hate admitting because, of course, I love her to death and she has been through hell in her life; it has understandably shaped her into who she is. To call back to a previous post—we are both vulnerable subjects. Her cruelty, which in other circumstances could perhaps easily be shrugged off, is very precise and cutting in our context.

So being at home has been difficult. I had mostly confined myself to my room. My mom can’t comprehend the impact her words have on me. When this particular permutation of it started in early September, it was so painful. She had sat me down, told me she’d spoken to some women but they admitted to not being interested because I wasn’t slim enough. And she told me all of this with such condescension. As if I was not aware that I was overweight. That I wasn’t aware that a woman with a very thin son would perhaps not be interested in a girl like me.

My mother is very prideful. I cried, asked her to please not talk about it anymore, that I was happy for the first time in a long time and that this was bringing me down, but she persisted because she’s a type-A fixer who genuinely has solved countless problems and thus thinks that she can talk out every issue to a resolution, but when it doesn’t work she lashes out. Her responses got more and more aggressive and verbally abusive, permeated with a discourse of it being her right and her duty as a mother. I ended up self-harming right then. It was such an instantaneous thing. She was swearing at me, I hurt myself, and then we were both stunned and my face was bleeding.

That certainly ended the conversation, and unfortunately, that has been my go-to at least twice before. To stop her from completely demoralizing me, I perform some spectacular self-harm and scare the shit out of both of us. I do not judge self-harming. I learned that from my therapist. She talked about how if it was something I relied on to cope, then we could acknowledge it as that and if it was something I wanted to change, we could work on it. However, in these instances, it’s different from the coping kind. This is immediate. What I imagine seeing red feels like, except the act turns inward. And because there is absolutely no time to think, it can be dangerous.

Now that I think about it, these acts of self-harm have always arisen after (or during) altercations with my mother. This was seemingly harmless (although it made things feel worse at the time because my nose is one of the few things I’m happy with about my body—now there’s a puffy scar across the bridge. C’est la vie…), but in middle school I remember stopping myself from doing far more violent things to myself—my arms jutting out right before I could slam my head into our ceramic sink comes to mind.

Anyway, this was all about a month ago, and our dynamic is far less hostile but the content of our exchanges is very much the same. I avoid her, she speaks about some potential husband loud enough for me to make it out vaguely. I started knitting (as a coping mechanism, ironically), she became overcome with excitement over me becoming domesticated.

It took its toll this week. I’m still coming to terms with the abuse in my past, so to hear someone who may have my best interest at heart but is expressing it in borderline abusive ways was not something I could handle. I used all the coping mechanisms I had—writing, guitar, knitting, music, but I mostly just wept while I did all of those things and then got increasingly frustrated that they weren’t working. I ended up sleeping most of the time. In spite of myself, I refused to eat for a couple days, worked out, and celebrated when I lost weight. I withdrew from commitments, ignored friends, and just cried it out.

And on some level it worked. I put it out there that I was struggling and people responded. I gave my body and mind the time it needed to process damaging information, relied on others, and now feel good and have taken a lot of steps to getting myself out of this situation. For one, I’ve started applying for jobs again. Distance will probably be the most effective way to avoid falling into this slump again, so first I need to work on financial independence.

I suppose the best way for me to think about this is in how this experience was enabling. It is easy to focus on the negatives of having those days where I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t stop crying for long enough to go see friends. But once that passed, it was the memory of that feeling that drove me to bite the bullet and submit applications. A determination to not slump to that again, bolstered by the support and love of people who genuinely don’t want me to change, helped me overcome the otherwise stagnating fear of rejection that prevents me from applying to jobs. This is definitely different from before. The last time I was in this bad a slump, I became unrecognizable to myself—dispassionate and removed about everything. This time, I forced myself to put it out there in public ways—writing on tumblr, telling friends I wasn’t well—it’s not easy when shame is such a part of your nature, but it worked. And I’m glad that I was able to articulate even a sliver of what my scattered mind wants to get across in this post.

To close, I just want to mention that there was a lot of chance that played into me getting out of this slump. For example, I happened across this very poignant question to Mariella Frostrup (“I find it hard to cope with my critical mother”) which resonated very strongly and appeased my “hysterical need to be understood” (there’s my of Montreal reference for the post 😉 ).

Pathologization as Isolation: The Politicization of Mental Health Discourse

The New York Times published the article titled ‘Effectiveness of Talk Therapy Is Overstated, a Study Says’ last Wednesday.

I see my therapist bi-weekly—although since I began coming to terms with my history of abuse, it has become weekly. Oftentimes, I vent in therapy, and my therapist offers tactics to cope. On occasion, I do become aware of our element. I catch her focusing on something I worry she’s focusing on because it’s something she can handle, not what I am perhaps most struggling with. My eyes glaze over and I ignore her advice until I’m capable of speaking up again. Sometimes I ask her how her other patients respond. What does she expect when she welcomes us with a “How are you?” The kneejerk? An honest response? (She says it depends). We have these unnerving moments where I become the observer and she becomes the subject, unbeknownst to her.

This is not to say I find therapy unhelpful—I find it profoundly helpful. I am someone who often feels burdensome to other people; I find it comforting to know I have someone I can vent to every week and not also involve in other matters of my life. She is someone who answered a distress call from me and talked me down from a moment of crisis after my uncle passed and I found myself alone and unable to cope at home. She provides me with strategies, coping mechanisms, affirmation that I need to hear, even if I don’t follow through on them.

But this article points to something concretely that I am hoping to unpack through this blogging project. My interest is in involving myself in challenging mainstream mental health discourse—an interest inspired by pieces like Plan C’s ‘We Are All Very Anxious’ and ethnographic pieces like Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling.

There is something significantly isolating about therapy and medication. In many ways, these are not treatments but band-aids slapped on gaping wounds torn into us by the systems we are born into. Problems are rooted in histories both personal and communal. They are shaped by structures and systems that atomize individuals, dehumanize them and their labor, categorize and assign values to bodies based on race and gender, and strip the earth of its own health. Evolutionary psychologists stress the importance of natural landscapes, communal existence, touching! but luxury which places hierarchies and status over these evolved needs makes for a stressful society; my aunt who has a history of depression recalls feeling uneasy during a trip in Dubai where the landscapes—running water and all—were artificial constructions to make the capitalist bastion of a resort feel more appealing than it could ever possibly be.

The pieces I mention above are significant because they challenge and speak to the struggles of the depressed and anxious body. We feel incapacitated, unmotivated to live life—but how can we use that feeling of incapacitation to challenge the systems that make us feel this way? It’s not easy—it’s much easier to lay in bed, trust me, I know. This is not to suggest that one should not try treatment to find relief—this is me saying that what we can also do is politicize our anxiety and our depression. If we know that our problems are not individualized; that trusted treatments are not and can not be the end all and final relief, we can instead ask what interventions need to be made into economic, political, social, and cultural systems that will fundamentally ease anxiety.

Capitalism and mental health are irreconcilable to me. Capitalism’s need for perpetual growth in a world of finite resources is the modern permutation of dehumanization for exploit that existed in its colonial ancestor. The pharmaceutical industrial complex and a plethora of other businesses rely on the compartmentalization of mental health categories. A systemic approach to mental health would fundamentally disrupt the existing balance of power, so how can we possibly expect mainstream mental health discourse to be adequate without interventions by the affected themselves?

That is what I like most about Depression: A Public Feeling—it is part memoir, part ethnographic study. The author is part of what she is examining; she is putting interventions into structures that are directly affecting her, and she is doing so while also using therapy and medication. You can occupy these different spaces and still think and engage critically with them.

These are thoughts I have had for a long time and this is the extent to which I have been able to articulate them. However, I am happy that I have it written as an introduction for myself so that I can begin to build on it. I will conclude with a booklist I hope to get through to make these next steps:


Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder by Jackie Orr
Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant
The Promise of Happiness by Sara Ahmed
Democratic Insecurities: Violence, Trauma, and Intervention in Haiti by Erica James

And finally, of course, this wouldn’t be this blog if I didn’t reference of Montreal. One of the most affirming moments of my life was when I saw Kevin Barnes being interviewed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Kevin talked about both his and Bowie’s relationship with mental health and how they use songwriting as a form of informal therapy. It was inspiring and exciting to hear Kevin (who also has a complex relationship with mental health, having navigated a variety of medications throughout his life) talk about engaging with mental health-related struggles for art and added layers onto the—primarily academic—understanding I was developing. It provided evidence for how these conditions that are so often emphasized as needing “treatment” are actually conditions that can be used and worked through by actual engagement with them.

edit: George Monbiot’s article on neoliberalism and inner turmoil is a good read.