Sunday, February 28, 2016

Vulnerability and Honesty

At a weekly support group for people with depression and bipolar disorder, heartbreaking personal stories from complete strangers are routine. A core of regular attenders shares company with a revolving door of people who are struggling mightily to hold everything in their lives together. Since my arrival on the scene, two months back, I have made silent bets with myself as to who will return the next week. Often I am disappointed when interesting people with compelling stories don't show up again.

This past week, one young woman discussed the recent end of a relationship, blaming herself fully for the breakup. The details she shared were harrowing and bleak, a tale of prolonged and intense emotional abuse at the hands of a lover. Her lack of recognition and habit of constant re-victimization did not sit well with me. She gave him every benefit of the doubt, faulting herself instead. This is a fairly routine and textbook case of domestic abuse. She rationalized that the treatment at his hands was somehow justified, as she certainly had her own flaws.

Her former boyfriend, who was quite controlling, had even forced her to stop taking medication for his own paranoid reasons. To him, she wasn't being as authentic and honest as she could be. It sounded like a clear case of projection on his behalf. As a result, she plunged into a depression, a hardly surprising outcome. She catered to every one of his whims, and even three months after they parted ways was still holding herself entirely at fault. Even though, yes, he had a history of abuse himself, it doesn't excuse hateful, hurtful conduct. This is what she will have to learn herself.

It's a story as sad as it is commonplace. I could have been furious at his behavior, but I knew that anger alone would not have solved her problem. It would have cranked me up and guided my advice and feedback in very unhelpful channels. In situations like these, people I've known feel that encouraging rage is the best medicine. I disagree. The details were presented in a rambling, wincing sort of way, an approach that constant second-guessing and low self-esteem produces. I listened in shock and concern more than anger. I have learned over time a bit about what works and what does not work.

Hate might be an understandable reaction in this context, but simple compassion seemed a better approach. She was a sensitive soul with an enormous amount of inner work left to be completed. If anger is a phase in personal development, then bully for it, but I sincerely hope it remains a state of time-limited transition for everyone.

One of my resolutions for the New Year was to keep my temper in check. For the most part, I think I've succeeded. I don't mind hearing these stories of desperation and vulnerability. When I'm able to provide helpful insight I do, but I try my hardest to tamp down on a bad habit. It's possible to be paying full attention and yet not be outraged. Listening to people unburden themselves in a public forum is vastly more powerful than any of the divisive campaign year electioneering, more meaningful than the multitude of persuasive essays posted daily on my Facebook feed.

One man always speaks about trying to be a good father to a child he has to share with his ex-wife. The two are barely on speaking terms, their custody arrangements very much still a court matter. He agonizes about every move, every protracted fight, and whether he will make enough money to produce child support and alimony payments. That is a kind of desperation I will never know myself, as I never intend to have kids, and it shows how challenging it is to be a parent.

Another woman speaks about maintaining sanity in ultra-competitive law school. Having been in grad school myself, I know what it's like to fight to keep one's head above water in an academic setting. If I were her, I'd drop everything for the moment and take enough time to heal, but she will have to reach this conclusion on her own. Many anecdotes I've heard will require extensive self-reflection before they ever are fixed or brought to any successful conclusion.

Most people arrive wanting to be heard. A few here and there want to be cured. Lessons to be learned are numerous. I appreciate that the group is receptive to new faces. In many other areas of my life, I've encountered cliques and elitist attitudes. I'll take meandering autobiography over snobbery any day. Vote for Bernie or Vote for Hillary, but you won't find my endorsement for either on this site.

No comments: