Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How to Change a Heart, and How not to Change a Heart

When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a broken person. You see, I was ostracized as a teenager. I didn't fit in, few people liked me, and the ones that did were not the best friends a person could have. You could have called me socially awkward and insecure, but that would be an understatement. I fell in love with him because he was one of the few people who would give me any attention as a girl.

We began as friends. He had graduated from my high school a year before me, and when he got to college he was in the throes of a major depressive episode. He was not a very popular person himself, he had a reputation for not treating people very well, and I believe he reached out to me because I was the only person who knew little enough of him to give him a chance.

We talked almost every night, for hours, sharing our innermost secrets and fears. After roughly 6 months, we began to express physical affection, although he never asked me to be with him. During that time of being close to him, I began to heal. I began to understand that High School is just a nasty place to be, no matter who you are, and I happened to be one of the less fortunate who was not gifted with a family capable of socializing me properly. He, however, did not heal. His wounds ran much deeper than mine ever did.

Being the naive girl that I was, I stood by his side, thinking that he was just a little bit behind and all he needed was a supportive friend. My social insecurtiy had all but subsided, but my personal and relationship insecurity was still alive and well. I still didn't understand that I was not only likeable, but desireable. I was trying to "change" him because I thought that I had little chance of finding another partner. Needless to say, it didn't work.

After a few more months, he revelaed to me that he was in love with somebody else, someone who was just like him, broken and lost. You see, I had begun to challenge his behavior and opinions in an effort to make him understand himself, and he didn't like that. He just wanted to wallow. I was heartbroken, all that effort and emotional energy, all those hopes, down the drain. As I ruminated, I came to the conclusion that I had been what psychologists would call an "enabler," which means that I supported his undesirable behavior, and he fed off of my support because it meant that he didn't have to change it.

This is years gone now, but it taught me a few key lessons:

1. You can't change a person who doesn't want to change. It doesnt matter if it's something as benign as a proclivity for wallowing or as malignant as abuse or drug addiction.

2. You shouldn't try to change a person for your own means. First of all, your emotional investment taints whatever guidance you may give them. Second of all, it's really only a good deed if it's done for their benefit.

3. If you want to change someone, you do want to empathize, but you do not want to empathize so much that you get caught up in their problems. You lose any control you have over the situation.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How I Learned About Abuse

When I was nineteen, I was kicked out of my mother's house. At the time, I understood abuse as hitting or raping; I didn't know that such a thing as emotional abuse occured, or that it could be just as damaging as the physical or sexual varieties. I didn't know that my childhood home was abusive, and I didn't know that abuse could rear its head in so many different ways.

Very soon after I was kicked out, I met Allen. He seemed beautiful to me, in every way. We got very close very fast, and within a matter of weeks, began a romantic relationship. To avoid a bad living situation, I spent more and more nights at his house. Soon, I was spending whole weeks there without once going home. After a few months, we decided to get an apartment together, but I had to move between states on a low income. I remained on the lease with my bad roommates to keep my vehicle legal while I worked to fund the repairs for state inspection, and was unable pay for rent at Allen's house during that time.

I should take a minor break and tell you that I believed myself to be a strong woman. I thought I knew what abuse was all about. I knew all the facts: abused people abuse others, women who are abused as children are much more likely than their unabused counterparts to be caught in the same cycle. I remember hearing about the incident with Rhianna and Chris Brown, and I remember thinking "That will never happen to me." I understood that my best friend was caught in a cycle of abuse, but I had no clue that that was exactly what was happening to me.

You see, as time passed, Allen slowly caught me up in that same vicious abuse cycle. It began with little things. Rude comments made in a temper fit, easily justifed by his "bad mood." Those comments got worse, especially when I lost 20 hours a week at my job and lost my car, and had to rely on him completely. He blamed it on stress. He told me I was a loser, he told me that I had a million problems; that I was a workload and a codependent. He told me that I was broken, and that I always had been, and only he could fix me. I never questioned him. I believed him.

In the span of a year, he stole my confidence, my self-esteem, and my self-reliance. He removed me from my position of stability and put me in a position where I had nothing to give to myself, emotionally or economically. I was trapped.

Then, one night, after the only fight in which I held my ground, he did what he had never done before and started carting my possessions down to the street. He said, "you don't live here, your name is not on the lease, you need to leave or I'm calling the police." I wouldn't bow down to him, and so he tried to force me. I left, I found myself a one-bedroom apartment, and began with nothing, not even a bed.

I stayed with him for another year, enduring the same emotional turmoil because I loved him and because I didn't believe I was worth a better person. Then, one night, we had another fight on the scale of the one in which he kicked me out. I stood my ground, he became enraged. I tried to leave him then, but he begged me to stay. A week after that, in a "stressful" situation, he chose to kick me out of his car on a dark, cold, rainy night, miles from the nearest town. He did swing back around to pick me up, but I demanded to be taken home, and he said "If you ruin this night, I'll never speak to you again." I said: "That's fine." and never looked back.

Right now, I'm working on a degree in psychology. I plan on taking it all the way up to the Master's level so that I can practice psychotherapy. I'm still poor, but I have resources and connections now that I never would have considered when Aaron was my entire reality. I have goals, I have dreams, I have self-reliance. I know people whose only agenda for their partner is to protect and love them. I also believe in myself, I discovered the vast potential within me that exists in every human being, something that I always knew existed in others but forgot existed within me.

What did I learn about abuse?

Emotional abuse is just as damaging as physical or sexual, albeit in different ways, and is often more dangerous because of its subtlety. It can happen to anybody, even the smartest, strongest person in the world.

Abusers don't abuse you because there's something wrong with you. Something inside of them is broken, and you can't fix it. They may blame you for it all the time, but that doesn't make it your fault, or your responsibility.

What did I learn about myself and my relationships?

1. Never let another person make you believe you are broken and they can fix you. Your faults are your responsibility, and only you can be your savior.

2. Never let another person define your mistakes or imperfections for you. What you like about yourself and what you don't like about yourself are up to you to decide, no other person has that right.

3. Know that a person who's worthy of your love will protect you and love you with all their heart, that they will never trap you, and if they do hurt you, they will shake the world to make it better.

4. Know that you, yes, little old you, are a gift to the whole world. You are not a workload, a project, a security blanket, or a sidekick, and nobody should ever make you feel that way.

You have it within you to move mountians and boil seas. I seem to recall a saying about people being "frightfully and wonderfully made." Love yourself for what you give to the world, and don't let anyone make you think that it's out of your reach or that you don't deserve it.