Monday, November 14, 2011

When too much is finally enough

For many years, I have been watching someone I love living in the receiving end of verbal and emotional abuse.  Having been through this myself -- in five relationships of which I am conscious -- I have, unfortunately, become a bit of an expert in the field.  And as that "expert", it's heartbreaking to watch someone you care about going through the exact same steps you've gone through, and the colleagues from your support group have gone through, and the steps are depressingly similar and predictable... and the inevitable heartbreak of realizing those steps just aren't going to work.

But you can't stop them from going through those steps, no matter how much you want to protect them from their actions.  They won't stop until they've tried it all.  Sure, you can try to make suggestions, ask questions, give whatever guidance you can offer, introduce some new tools to their emotional toolkit, but there's nothing you can do to get them out of the situation until you see in their eyes that "ah-haaa!" moment.  When THEY realize that nothing they are doing is making a dent of difference in the other person's behaviour.

And that moment is enlightening.  That moment is relieving.  That moment really and truly sucks.

Because, while it is the moment you realize it's not your fault, it's also the moment when you realize you're not super-human.  And, like any good co-dependent, you have based your expectations of yourself on your incredible super-humanness.  You are proud that you can do things nobody else can withstand.  You can deal with pain that would make lesser people whimper at one-tenth of a percent.  You are so much better at enduring this stuff than anyone else on the planet, you might as well take it on and save the world!!!

Until your body finally reaches out and throttles that part of your brain, and shows you, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you really, truly, can't take this any more.

And then you mourn.  A funny type of mourning, because the abuser hasn't really left (typically, they're still calling you or e-mailing you or harassing you at your workplace or your front door several times a day, telling you how they wouldn't have been so awful to you if you hadn't really deserved it...), and the end of the relationship as it stands is, indeed, a good thing that even your battered brain can recognize.  But you mourn for what you wanted the relationship to be.  For what you tap-danced and cartwheeled and juggled fire to make it be.  And now know it may never be.

Not that it necessarily will never be... of the five relationships where I had to completely pull the plug, two came back into my life, after they (and I!) learned what my boundaries are, and they (and I) learned how to respect them.  Of course, those relationships are still not the sunshine-and-lollipop fantasy relationships I had to mourn earlier, but they're healthy, reasonably satisfying relationships.  The other three could never be, because the other part of the duo had no desire or ability to change their part of the equation.

And that's the hardest lesson to learn.  You can't force somebody to be compassionate.

As children, we don't know enough to tell ourselves that our parent / caregiver / authority figure has some severe emotional issues of their own and are not competent to look after us.  We can't think that way about the people who are charged with looking after us.  Instead, we tell ourselves that we must not deserve that care, and then start looking for all the reasons we can think of.

As the damaged adults growing out of those children, unless someone is able to give us the tools we missed in our childhood toolbox, we continue to hold those thoughts about our undeservedness.  And when, inevitably, we run across someone who treats us in the same cold way, we see it as confirmation of those lies about ourselves.  So we accept it.  Anyone who tells us we deserve better obviously doesn't know us that well...

But the beauty of the world is that even a decades-belated adolescence is still an adolescence.  It's still fraught with the same pain and grief and angst... maybe not the acne, but the pain and grief and angst.  And it's not much fun.  But if we're surrounded by a good support team of people who are compassionate and do care for us, our emotional maturity finally has a chance to catch up to our physical maturity.

I used to say I was 18 going on 80, and many parts of me were -- by that age I had experienced, suffered through, and come out the other side of more traumatic movie-of-the-week-ready events than many people go through in a lifetime.  But many other parts of me were, later, still 30 going on 5.  I was missing a lot of tools in my toolbox.  My family never taught me how to play baseball, because there were no baseball players in my family who knew how to do it.  My family never gave me the proper tools for my toolbox because they didn't have the tools, either.  I'm sure we can go back many generations and find a lot of tool-less individuals (and yes, some tool-less tools!).

I was lucky.  I found some wonderful people in my life who gave me the tools I needed, and taught me how to use them properly.  Yes, sometimes I still try to use a hammer to change a light-bulb, but I'm getting better at figuring out which tools are needed when.  That whole "trusting my gut" thing.

It was a conscious and difficult effort to build my toolkit.  And now it's my responsibility to help whoever's looking for it put their kits together too.

Number one tool, by the way, is trusting your gut.  (I never said I was perfect at using my toolkit, just that I was much better at it than before!)  There is a time to sit back and just be there, there is a time to offer assistance, there is a time for emergency intervention -- your gut will know.  Just listen.


  1. You rock!

    And whew -- it didn't hurt a bit :)

  2. Thanks, lovely -- although it hurts like hell watching this all go down...