Monday, July 12, 2010

Damage Has Consequences




I am and have always been a vocal proponent of therapy, medication, and introspection. All three in tandem have proven to be invaluable to my own understanding of self, as well as an effective treatment plan. I am not the only person who has reaped great benefit from them, too. Recent developments, however, have given me a greater understanding of the limitations of each of these methods of attaining mental health. By this I mean that a friend recently pointed out once again my infamous difficulty in setting adequate boundaries for myself and alongside it, unintentionally exhausting people with my need to constantly reach out.

I can point the finger of blame squarely at childhood trauma for both, but regardless of the cause, I am left with the aftermath. Though I may not have caused either of these things, I have had nonetheless to contend with the negative consequences. For a long while, this was a reliable source of anger, renewed afresh when I’d receive the latest, politely worded plea for space which confirmed that I was calling, texting, or e-mailing too frequently, despite my best intentions to the contrary. I don't want to think of any process towards greater health as an exercise in futility, but being reminded again of the depths of the challenge reminds me how much farther I have to go.

The violence so dominant in this society could find any number of apologists if personal willpower and motivation alone would undo the damage done. Someone could say, for example, The battered girlfriend can always heal herself psychologically with enough exertion and devotion to getting better. Physical therapy can do wonders for people with physical injuries, and mental therapy can accomplish the same, they'd say. However, this is a fatuous comparison that insists a victim ought to be the sole person who is obligated to pick up the pieces. In this scenario, not only should this not have to be her responsibility, sometimes violence is so destructive that one never fully recovers from it. If our capacity to destroy was equal to our capacity to heal, then the argument might hold water. Alas, it is not.

The physical scars may heal, leaving behind a few slight traces, but things will never truly be the same again. This is not meant to discourage those in search of help and healing, but rather a reminder that our bodies and our minds are not indestructible. For example, I was in a car accident in my late teens whereby the deflation of an airbag dislocated my left thumb. I may have built the strength of the joint back over time, but it has never been the same since. Its range of motion is only half what it used to be, and it bends stiffly and woodenly towards my palm. Even surgery won't restore it to complete functionality.

What I do in therapy every session is engage in a process of desensitizing myself to situations where I encounter men while out and about otherwise living my life. As one might imagine, I have plenty of opportunities to feel uncomfortable all the time. Bit by bit, one exhausting baby step after another, I press on. If I were not committed to this as I am, my numerous fears and reservations would have me isolate myself as a means of protection, such as I have done for years. It’s not fair on two levels, particularly to men who never did anything themselves to make me fearful of them. When I am unable to rationally distinguish between friend or foe, I shortchange more than just myself.

One of the reasons I became a pacifist and Quaker was my realization that violence and brutality do not stop at the fringes of a battle in some foreign land. It is a cliche by now to state that all too many inner city neighborhoods have become war zones, and we need only look at our neighbor to the south, Mexico, to see a periodic series of bloody skirmishes raging for control of the drug trade. Some in our society work jobs which place them in constant contact with violence. This is reflected in the militaristic nature of the very names themselves: police officer, firefighter, paramedic. People are said to battle anything from the temptation to overeat to some serious disease like cancer. Those who unfortunately succumb to said disease after a lengthy illness are said to have "lost their battle".

In Feminist circles, we are cautious not to overuse the phrase “rape”, in the hopes of preserving the awful power that word connotes. Sometimes I wonder if we’re fighting a losing battle (see, here I go again!) because once the term was far more pejorative and offensive than it is now. For example, the mid-sixties art film, The Knack... and How to Get It features an extended sequence wherein a young woman deliberately overuses that particular word for pure shock value alone. By its conclusion she uses it as a rough synonym to the act of sexual intercourse itself, so as to bolster the self-esteem of a shy man she fancies, one who never had much luck with woman. To use the word as a method of flirtation still has the power to shock, but with the passage of time, the playful, cheeky quality of this application no longer applies. Rape is not a laughing matter, even one intended to be subversive.

As mammals with inordinately large brains, we sometimes overlook the primal and primeval aspects of ourselves, stuck as we are in our own cerebral cortex. But when we are engaged in violent acts or rather spurned to them, we are little more than animals reacting impulsively. One of the blessings of being so self-aware is that we are capable of so much creativity and with a prodigious ability to invent things for the benefit of all, but the drawback is that we are acutely aware of loss, regardless of how it arrives. We have the terrifying capacity to step back from what we have destroyed and to take stock of it all. With that knowledge, we have the ability to know intrinsically how to keep ourselves healthy and functional. Though we may not literally have taken up arms and engaged an adversary in combat, each tragedy we observe makes an indelible mark. There is no antidote, nor any cure for any of this. The human body, to say nothing of the human psyche is not mean to be put through the wringer.