Tuesday, 19 February 2013
“Crawling in my skin, these wounds they will not heal.” I found myself subjected to Linkin Park’s “Crawling” due to the vagaries of someone else’s iPod. My immediate response was to suggest that the boys involved ought to eat more broccoli, as they might be suffering from iron deficiency hence their wound healing problems. Yes, I was being an insufferable arse, but that level of whiny self-pity just grates on me. However, as per normal with songs that really get on my nerves I’ve not been able to get it out of my head for days now.
In between wishing I could stick a corkscrew in my ear and remove the offensive tune, I have been thinking. I wonder whether the kids have a point. Do wounds really heal? At which point can we classify ourselves as recovered? I have been a bit obsessed with recovery of late, largely because I got seriously walloped by life in the last few years and I needed to help myself, to save myself. I think I might have got it wrong all along.
Do wounds heal? I have a history of thankfully minor physical injuries largely due to sporting mishaps. If you entertain certain sorts of activities, damage just tends to come with the territory. I guess if you are both talented and lucky there is a chance that you might escape unscathed, but I am not sure. Even taking sod’s law out of the picture, if you stretch yourself to your limits, if you try to really achieve all you can, chances are that at some point you will come to some degree of harm. Hell, sometimes I have only learnt what my limits were by smacking right up against them. Maybe that is just me being an idiot and by following a judicious learning programme you might avoid such instances, but I don’t think so. Being a coward, I have always taken care not to do anything completely stupid and yet I have ended up hurting myself.
I don’t regret a thing, but my body bears the marks of the years of fun I’ve had with it. Some of the damage has gone altogether, thanks to the body’s wonderful ability to get itself back to normal. Some of the larger flesh wounds are still visible but do not affect me at all, existing just as scars. However, some of the structural injuries – dislocated joints, ruptured ligaments, pulled muscles, a few bits of bone broken off –are still there, and sometimes they like to remind me. I have mostly regained functionality but there are various parts that don’t work quite as they used to. I know what they say about bones growing back stronger after a break, but the same does not seem to apply to soft tissue. I have a weaker ankle, a weaker knee, a weaker shoulder, and so on. In daily life and in training I am aware of the fact that those areas may let me down, that I need to be mindful of them without overcompensating.
I consider my ankle healed, even though it has remained weaker and prone to dislocating. Ditto my knee, my shoulder, my elbow and other various body parts. I do not consider myself crippled or damaged. Why should I, when I can still do most things? I have come to realise, though, that for reasons beyond my understanding I have not applied the same criteria to emotional or psychological wounds.
I must admit that just using the phrase “emotional wound” makes me want to reach for a sick bucket. I am not a stoic, I really am not. I am in fact a wussbag. I get hurt easy and I get hurt hard. However, I hate the expression. I get twitchy when people say things like “such-and-such happened to me a gazillion of years ago, which is why I am messed up now”. I find it abhorrent. I totally, utterly, entirely understand that horrible things happen and they leave their mark, but shouldn’t we strive to get over them? I hate it when people seem to cling to the reasons (or excuses) for what they know are their weaknesses as if they were get-out-of-jail-free cards or badges of honour.
Please believe that I am not completely devoid of heart and empathy, nor of experience in the subject. I have plenty of issues I struggle with due to past events, my upbringing in particular. I am aware that I need to be on my guard because certain ingrained reactions, certain aspects of my personality, may otherwise let me down. However, I do not go around telling myself that “my parents never loved me so I’m gloriously fucked up” and carry on merrily fucking my life up left, right and centre. I might fuck up, that’s a fact, but it won’t be for lack of trying to do the best I can, not only for the people around me but first and foremost for myself. I want to live the best possible life I can. That is the bit that really vexes me, when people essentially seem to give up on themselves. If we hold onto the shit in our lives, we are going to have shitty lives.
The above-normal percentage of swearwords in the above paragraph may convey to you how incredibly angry this sort of thing makes me. What makes me even angrier is when people do not try to help themselves yet expect everyone’s sympathy and understanding, when they use their problems as leverage. For instance, I had a boyfriend in his late 20s whose stock sentence was “I do <insert-reckless-or-illegal-behaviour-here> because my stepdad was a disciplinarian.” Well, I’m sorry, but he had well over a decade to get over that, or at least try. But no, he just used the fact that he had admittedly serious childhood problems to justify all his behaviours. Because of his past traumas, the people around him were expected to put up with everything he threw at them. I am pretty confident of the fact that, with that sort of attitude, he will be doing the same for the rest of his life. I have no respect for that.
My lack of tolerance gets worse. If you really want to make my blood boil, you can add yet another element to this. You can have an issue, give up on sorting it, use it to justify anything you might do and be PROUD of it. You would be surprised how common this is. I recently met someone who told me that he suffered from serious insomnia. He could not sleep more than 2-3 hours per night. I have had rampant insomnia at times, so he had all my sympathy as I know how it can seriously affect your life. I asked him if the doctors had not been able to help, and he told me that none of the remedies they had tried worked. He had had all sorts of tests and they could not find anything wrong. As the problem started when his mother died, they reckoned that it was an emotional issue. I felt acutely sorry for the guy, but that didn’t last. I asked him how long ago his mother had died. “Over five years now.”
“You have not been able to sleep for five years?”
“Yes – that is how emotionally sensitive I am, unlike most guys.”
And that was it for me. He was actually proud of not being able to sleep, hence function. He did not see it as a problem, as something marring his life. He had given up fighting it, because in essence he was proud of it as it showed how special he was. Sorry, but that is not something I can tolerate.
Ultimately, everyone has got the right to live their lives the way they want. I don’t believe I have all the answers – hell, I don’t even believe I have all the questions. However, I have my own set of principles and this sort of thing goes right against them. Life is full of sharp corners and we are all going to die in the end, but shouldn’t that give us a reason to strive for wellness, for inner progress, for ourselves? Shouldn’t we try to make the best of it?
I don’t see how holding onto our emotional wounds can help. Robyn Hobb puts it best, I think: “This terrible event – whatever it is – is over and done. Cling to it and let it shape you and you are doomed to live it forever. You are granting it power over you. Set it aside, and shape your future as you wish it to be. Then you have seized control of it.” Isn’t that a wonderful quote? I have referred to it many a time in my life, trying to use it as a compass to guide me through difficult times.
As I have learnt in the recent past, it is a lovely sentiment, but it can also be classed as horseshit. Life can hit you so hard at times that you just haven’t got it in you to fight. It can wind you and maim you and torture you and make you wish that you had died the day before it all started, when you were still happy, when you were so blessedly innocent and stupid and blind that you did not know what was to come. It can hurt you so badly that you cannot see an end to the pain, that you cannot envisage ever overcoming it. As Rocky Balboa says, “The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.” But he also has an answer: “But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done.”
I don’t think I won. I put one foot in front of the other, because I could not afford not to. I asked for help and clung onto some people for dear life. I have no idea where I would be without the comfort they gave me. Even with all the help I got, I messed up on a variety of fronts a staggering number of times. Some of the mistakes can’t be undone now. I let people down. That was the past, ok, and I ought to be able to suck it up and move on, but I keep looking at myself now and finding broken places, missing functionality, weaknesses. It seems at times that my recovery is taking place on some sort of spiral, with recurring cycles of turmoil. I seem to be going over old ground again and again, slowly and painfully putting together a complicated picture in my mind, a jigsaw made of barbed wire.
Sometimes I feel as if I am climbing up the steps of an Aztec pyramid. At every painfully gained new level, I have to go through the whole recovery process anew. The higher I get, the better I feel when I feel better, but the worse I hurt when I feel bad. I generally feel and think more clearly and acutely, which is both a blessing and a curse. The proportion of good versus bad periods is getting larger and larger, but am I over it? No way. I cannot see the top of the pyramid. I am not healed. I am not well. I am not back to normal.
That is the crux of the matter. If I had suffered an equivalent degree of physical damage, I do not think I would expect myself to ever get back to normal. I would strive to regain as much use from the affected part as possible, I would do my physio and do my level best to heal as much as I could, but I would not expect normality. I most definitely would not crucify myself for not getting better quickly or fully enough. I believe I’d think myself lucky I survived.
Maybe it is inevitable that some wounds will never fully heal, be they made in flesh, bone, mind or heart. Maybe I ought to change tack. I am not yet back to full strength, that’s a fact, but rather than seeing it as a failure I ought to accept that in recovery you just have to do the time, that you can’t force it. Maybe I need to expect to hurt a little (or a lot) every time I push myself further because I am pushing against an injury. Maybe I also have to accept that I might never get back to how I was before, because real damage has taken place.
I find that sort of acceptance difficult, because it smells a bit like surrender. However, the fact that I am not going back to how I was before the events took place may not be a bad thing at all. I have developed in ways that I did not believe were possible. In fact, if you had told me three years ago what I would be destined to go through, I would have told you straight up that there was no way I could cope with it. But I did cope, I am still here and some days are even good – isn’t that a success? If I went back to how I was, after all, it would mean that I could find myself going through it all again. I might be a different person when I finally come out of this, but change, in this situation, may also mean improvement, learning, development.
Giving up on the idea of returning to how I was before could take a weight off my shoulders and help me focus on managing whatever changes are taking place. One of my favourite quotes on emotional anguish is, characteristically, from a rather irrelevant children’s movie, “The Tale of Desperaux”: "When your heart breaks, it can grow back crooked.” Yes, it may sound like a platitude, but you can’t tell me that it isn’t true. The same applies to your mind, soul and body. Instead of comparing myself to the old me, which has been effectively obliterated by events, and finding myself wanting, I could concentrate on nurturing the new, up-and-coming me. That’s a job that needs doing carefully and thoroughly, like any rehab or physio. Plus, I don’t know much about anything, but I know that the me who pulled through is a girl with mileage. That’s a girl who’s seen a lot and done a lot and dealt with a hell of a lot. That’s a girl with cojones. The girl before, the one who got trounced, couldn’t fight her way out of a wet paper bag.
There is a wonderful quote by Hemingway that everyone loves to use when they are talking about survival: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Doesn’t it just sound wonderful? Unfortunately, it is only half the story, as he went on to say: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” I guess I should be glad that I’m not that special. I survived this round, just. It was my hardest one to date but there are, no doubt, more rounds to come. The rounds will only end when I die, this not being the land of “happily ever after”.
The more I do, the more I risk. The more I risk, the more chances I have of getting hurt. The more I get hurt, the more chances I have of suffering permanent damage. Some wounds will not heal. The thing is, I have no intention to stop doing stuff, because that would mean not living life to the full and still dying at the end. I have no intention of deliberately courting pain, but I don’t see much point in being an entirely pristine corpse. Now I just have to stop getting in my own way and get on with it.
Sunday, 10 February 2013
If you have read any of my past blogs, you might be aware of the fact that I have a slight tendency to get myself into scrapes. Thankfully this is not a problem because I have an infallible system for dealing with bad situations. It is not my original creation but I cannot for the life of me recall where I picked it up from – I have the dreadful feeling that it might be from a magazine I glanced upon at the dentist. I call it the “What? So what? Now what?” approach. That is because those are the three questions I ask myself and force myself to answer. It probably sounds idiotic and simplistic, but to me it is not instinctual and it is incredibly helpful. I have to be strict with myself and make sure that I follow the process, however unpleasant it may be, because I know that it will accelerate my recovery.
The first question, “What?”, may sound easy to answer. However, it can often not be the case. Answering this question requires making an honest assessment of what has actually happened. It requires looking at a situation impartially and unemotionally, sometimes with brutal honesty. I don’t know about you, but I am often not very good at this when I am involved in something. I find it far easier to say “I have just sprained my ankle” than “my friend X deliberately hurt me”, for instance. If I don’t force myself to look at reality, I can end up beating about the bush forevermore. I can end up saying things like “my friend X did/said something that I found upsetting, but maybe I shouldn’t have, I probably shouldn’t have, I’m sure he did not mean it, I might be oversensitive...” and blah blah blah on I go around in circles. Frankly, you can’t go anywhere with that. You can’t start a recovery process if you do not know what it is that you are recovering from. Finding a cure is a damn sight easier if we have an accurate diagnosis – that’s just obvious.
I have been recently commended for my “raw honesty”, regarding my blogs. I can see how people may think that and I wish it was true. Unfortunately my introspective works are often the product of months if not years of floundering, brooding and half-lying to myself. It’s hard to make a statement like “my father never loved me nor wanted me”. It is factually true, but it took me a long time to be able to look at the facts and openly admit it. It has taken years for me to be able to say that and not feel a twinge to the heart, too. It is even worse when you need to make a statement that makes you a bad person. For instance, I hated my grandmother. It is the truth, I can justify it to myself and quite possibly to an open-minded listener, but it is not a nice thing to say.
Sometimes even labelling physical events can be painful. I have been involved in an extreme situation where I failed to assess what had happened to the point that I thought I was losing the plot. I was struggling to deal with my reactions to an event that I did not understand in the least. It was as if I was suffering the pains and physical impairment of a major fracture without admitting that it had taken place. I ended up eventually talking to a friend who, by the simple means of putting a one-word label on the event, completely changed my assessment of it. From that point on, I could move on in dealing with it. Up until that point I hadn’t stood a chance. Making the correct judgement call gave me an understandable reason for my reactions, too.
The thing is, though, that labelling events and situations can be the point of no return. There can be a huge cost to it, inasmuch as you are also labelling the people involved. For instance, if you admit to yourself that you are being bullied by your boss, you also have to be able to admit that your boss is a bully. Your relationship will most likely change, quite possibly deteriorating irreparably. Even if they change afterwards, they will be the person who caused you some sort of hurt. The flipside of it is that you also have to admit that you are being bullied, that you are the victim. Now, some people might find it easy, but I know for a fact that I struggle with things of that kind. In fact, I struggle with it so much that for months and months and goddamned months I argued with a friend about whether one of my exes (the psycho, see previous blog) had been abusive or not. The term stuck in my throat and made me rather vexed. It made me so vexed that I wrote a painfully self-righteous blog about it. I still stand by the blog – kinda. I am willing to admit that my ex was trying to be abusive. I am unwilling to admit that I was being abused, though. There is a difference between someone trying to punch you and you getting punched, after all. The blow has to connect. So there.
As you can see, raw honesty notwithstanding, my ability to tie myself up in verbal knots rather than calling a spade a spade is considerable. Not only I can defend arguments so tenuous they might as well have been woven out of moonshine and fairy dust, but I can also go around in circles and spirals and even fractal patterns ad infinitum. If you leave my rather overactive and garrulous brain to its own devices, it can envelop itself in an endless narrative that goes absolutely nowhere. I could go on about what has happened indefinitely and never move on. It can feel as if my brain is stuck in a vortex. This is why I often have to force myself to move to the second step of the process, the “So what?” This is an assessment of the actual damage that has taken place.
Like the first step, this can also be difficult for me. Not only it can take some effort to get my brain to stop flapping, but sometimes I can find it hard to have the courage to look at the damage, as it can be so severe. It can be hard to admit the implications of events. For instance, say that the “what” is your partner lying to you. The “so what” can be that you are deeply hurt and that you believe that you cannot trust him again. Neither of them are easy admissions, as they upset the status quo. They set a point of no return, again. Nonetheless, without a frank and accurate damage assessment there can be no plan for repairs.
The third step of the process, “Now what?” is where I start looking at solutions. This is the upturn, I guess, although it generally does not feel like it at all. Often, unfortunately, the changes required do not feel at all positive. For instance, it can be heart-rending to break up with someone you have deeply loved, even when they have let you down by doing something very bad indeed. It can be traumatic to give up a familiar job because you cannot stand your boss anymore. Furthermore, this is the stage where other people often become, by necessity, involved in the process. By and large, you can go through steps one and two in the comfort of your own head, but generally speaking other people will be involved in or affected by the consequences of your decision. You will not only have to deal with your resistance to change but with theirs too. There is a good chance that you will find that you have to make change happen, and change is hard.
Regardless of its difficulties, this is my three-step process for getting myself out of the shit and I am sticking with it. It can be hard, but it is simple and effective. It has helped me a lot in a variety of situations of all degrees of seriousness. Indeed, applying the process meticulously has helped me become much better at assessing the seriousness of events, as in the past I had been far too prone to losing my sense of balance. It stops me blowing minor events out of proportion and helps me deal with the truly serious ones. Yes, if life hits you really badly you might need help to go through the process, or after it. Sometimes you might need a hell of a lot of help, indeed. I still firmly believe, though, that you have to go through the process, because without diagnoses you are unlikely to find a cure. You should try this next time you have a problem. It rocks.
However, I have learnt recently that it does not work at all, in any way, shape or form, in situations when events have been so drastic that I can’t see how I can get over them. There are events so bad, so painful that surviving them may seem worse than disintegrating because of them. Obviously everyone is different and quite possibly I am a bigger wuss than most, but the situation in which I found this not to work is in the case of grief and loss.
Death does not scare me at all, neither mine nor that of my loved ones. Loss, however, totally wrecks me. I cannot stand to see other people grieving and I cannot handle my own grief at all. I just collapse under it. There are two main reasons why the “W-SW-NW” approach does not work for me in this sort of circumstance. Firstly, the pain I experience is so severe and so outside of my control that I cannot picture an end to it. If you have suffered through a severe, long illness you might have found that you get to a point when you just cannot remember how it feels to be well. I get like that with the pain of loss and grief. I can’t see how I can possibly ever stop hurting again.
Just as bad, if not worse, is the fact that I cannot tolerate to start moving ahead towards a new life that would encompass my loss. I do not want to accept it. All I want, really, is to have died in a freak accident the day before the loss took place. I would have died happy, completely oblivious to the fact that my happiness would have otherwise have been so short-lived. That would have been the easy way out.
My “infallible” system is very fallible indeed, it seems. However, I cannot think of a better one, so I am sticking to it. Incidentally, it has occurred to me that I have never used it in the case of positive situations or events. I have only used it to forge a plan of attack in emergencies. I am planning to apply it the next time something good happens and see what transpires. It’s got to be good to spend at least as much time thinking about positive stuff, after all.
In 2006 I fell in love with a psychopath. I didn’t know it at the time, obviously, but that is what I did. This man crashed into my life all of a sudden, out of nowhere. He completely changed my outlook. He re-energised and focused me at a time when I was hurt and floundering. And just as quickly, he disappeared again, purely due to his work circumstances. It was rather like having a comet passing too close – the shock, the sudden light, the blazing trail left behind, the feeling of surprise and loss and of my orbit having been realigned.
He left my life, seemingly forever, but what he told me, what he taught me, remained firmly planted in my mind. That it is important to follow your heart and not compromise, because you have to be true to yourself. That “You have to make yourself happy. If you are miserable, you’re hardly going to be a little ray of sunshine for anybody else.” Yes, these are the sort of illuminating thoughts you might find in a fortune cookie, but when they are said with conviction by a person who seems to practice what he preaches they have a different sort of impact.
It helped that I fancied him rotten. This wasn’t so much because of how he looked - he was nothing special. The thing I liked, though, was that he seemed perfectly comfortable in his clothes, in his skin and in his life. He owned the space around him. Everything around him became a backdrop to him. His energy sparkled out of him.
Of course I fell in love with him. How could I not? He was everything that I admired and I failed to be. He was self-confident, courageous, determined. He followed his heart and disregarded society’s expectations and canons. He was true to himself first and foremost. He was truly a free man. He was the most alive person I’ve ever met.
He was also incredibly charming. Half the stuff he told me could have been construed as flirting, if not sexual harassment. The thing was, it seemed to come to him as natural as breathing. I could not make out what he meant by it. I did not know if it was about me, or just how he did things. I could not quite figure him out; I was getting a good insight on what he was like, but not on what he meant to do with or about me. A week later, he left, because of work. I felt like a lighthouse must feel, left behind tied to a rock while ships below sail away. Life resumed its normal course, externally, but inside something was brewing. This was not the life that I was supposed to live, and I wanted out.
Three years later, by the vagaries of the internet, we got back in touch. Three months later I had put my notice in and was on my way to join him. I have never regretted that decision, regardless of how things turned out. He was the catalyst I needed to pull myself out of the quagmire of a life I hated, but was too comfortable to give up thoughtlessly. I do not think I would have had the courage otherwise, even though it was the wrong life for me. I would have joined the flock of people who get to middle age and realise that they haven’t lived at all, because they lived a life that, whilst perfectly good, was not the right one for them.
So, running off with him was precisely the right thing for me to do, and it would all have been splendid had it not been for a slight detail. The guy was a psychopath. I do not mean by this that he went around murdering and maiming, as people often imagine psychopaths must do. What I meant is that he fits perfectly the psychological profile of the psychopath as it is currently accepted by psychologists. It took me a long while to realise this. In fact, I did not realise it at all. I was told by a friend, and that was months after we had split up. All I knew at the time, when I was still involved in the relationship, was that my partner’s behaviour had changed progressively to the point where I was eventually forced to leave for my own safety.
The changes crept up on me little by little. I did not notice what was happening to our relationship and my life until neither of them resembled in any way, shape or form what I had signed up to. Things went wrong on a number of fronts. To cut a long story short, he hit the bottle really hard; chased skirts; kept getting into fights, both verbal and physical; wanted to completely control my life but at the same time to have nothing to do with me; became openly disgusted with me and often verbally abusive; indulged in impulsive behaviours, particularly with regards to how he handled money and took care of himself, which made “normal” life an impossibility; and he lied all the time, about anything and everything, even when the evidence was so obvious that there was no way he could get away with it. The list could go on. The bottom line is that I left home to be with a charming, attentive, romantic, capable man who could not get enough of me, and had to flee the house of a pathologically lying, drunken, womanising, out-of-control physical wreck who was a danger to himself and others, me in particular.
When I look at how things started and how they ended, it is hard to believe that he was the same person. When I am emotionally involved in a situation I guess I become wilfully blind. I tell myself the right story, which is not necessarily the truth. Little changes crept up and I allowed them to slide, because all relationships evolve, after all. The honeymoon never lasts. Then bigger changes took place, changes I was not happy to put up with, but I let them slide and ascribed them to the circumstances of our life. It was never his fault – it was because of his work, his upbringing, anything else, really. At the end, I found myself having to accept a situation that was plainly unacceptable, because I was stuck. I was in an all-or-nothing situation, because my life was too tightly wound around his. From a purely practical point of view, he was my lynchpin. He was not willing to change – “I am what I am and I do what I do” was one of his mottoes – and I could not demand any changes on his part. I had to take it all or leave it all. Of course, I should have known that this would be the case from the word go, as I had given up my life to join his. What I had not known, at the time, is that that situation didn’t arise out of coincidence. That was what he wanted, because he was a psychopath.
For the longest time, I did not see it. I tortured myself with my failings. If only I had been stronger and put my foot down earlier, he might have controlled his behaviour more and we might have never got to that stage. By letting little things slide I had allowed the big things to happen too. Many of the things he accused me of – of being too reliant on other people (“pathetic”), of not always been able to work things out of my own (“obtuse”), of crumbling too easily in the face of difficulties (“negative”), were true. Had I been too weak? Had I let us both down? What had I done wrong to change this Prince Charming of a man into The Incredible Hulk? I really struggled to give up firstly on the dream of us, and then on the dream of him. I would not wake up and smell the coffee, because reality hurt.
After I left my ex, friends started to offer their pearls of wisdom. The man was an alcoholic. He was manic-depressive, hence the random behaviour. He had low self-esteem, which is why he acted so arrogantly yet took no care of himself. He loved himself too much, he hated himself, he hated the world, he hated me. Nothing quite made sense. Ultimately, if someone has a serious psychological condition or an addiction, I can’t see how they would be able to turn it on and off on demand. My ex’s behaviours were not outside of his control. He could decide whether he wanted to be out of control at any given moment. He could pick the face he was going to wear that day.
Months after things were over, I was discussing with a new friend what had gone wrong. When I listed the behaviours my ex engaged in, my friend’s answer was simple. Things were pretty clear-cut in his eyes. I needed to check out the Psychopath Test.
Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of empathy for others. Most psychopaths do not walk around brandishing chainsaws and leaving a trail of madness and mayhem behind them. In fact, in some fields a degree of psychopathy is desired, if not essential. Captains of industry would not make it very far without putting profits ahead of people, for instance.
Psychopathy can be “diagnosed” via the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, a test developed in 1995. The test and its implications were popularised in “The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson, the author of “The men who stare at goats”. There are twenty basic characteristics of the psychopath, as follows:
- “Glib and Superficial Charm. The tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A psychopath never gets tongue-tied. They have freed themselves from the social conventions about taking turns in talking, for example.
- Grandiose Self-Worth. A grossly inflated view of one's abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky, a braggart. Psychopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings.
- Need for Stimulation or Proneness to Boredom. An excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Psychopaths often have a low self-discipline in carrying tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time, for example, or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine.
- Pathological Lying. Can be moderate or high; in moderate form, they will be shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever; in extreme form, they will be deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, unscrupulous, manipulative, and dishonest.
- Conning and Manipulativeness. The use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item #4 in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one's victims.
- Lack of Remorse or Guilt. A lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, coldhearted, and unempathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one's victims.
- Shallow Affect. Emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness.
- Callousness and Lack of Empathy. A lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless.
- Parasitic Lifestyle. An intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others as reflected in a lack of motivation, low self-discipline, and inability to begin or complete responsibilities.
- Poor Behavioral Controls. Expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily.
- Promiscuous Sexual Behavior. A variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits or conquests.
- Early Behavior Problems. A variety of behaviors prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use, and running away from home.
- Lack of Realistic, Long-Term Goals. An inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals; a nomadic existence, aimless, lacking direction in life.
- Impulsivity. The occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations, and urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, and reckless.
- Irresponsibility. Repeated failure to fulfill or honor obligations and commitments; such as not paying bills, defaulting on loans, performing sloppy work, being absent or late to work, failing to honor contractual agreements.
- Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions. A failure to accept responsibility for one's actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial.
- Many Short-Term Marital Relationships. A lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including marital.
- Juvenile Delinquency. Behavior problems between the ages of 13-18; mostly behaviors that are crimes or clearly involve aspects of antagonism, exploitation, aggression, manipulation, or a callous, ruthless tough-mindedness.
- Revocation of Condition Release. A revocation of probation or other conditional release due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation, or failing to appear.
- Criminal Versatility. A diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes.”
My ex ticked all the boxes, with a few exceptions. I cannot give you an answer on points 12, 18, 19 and 20, because of the significance of points 4 and 5. You could not believe anything he said about his past life, because he would tell you whatever suited his needs at that precise moment. You could never believe anything he said, at all, ever.
Quite simply, I was taken in. A psychopath groomed me because he wanted me in his life, to suit his needs. He sensed my vulnerability or decided that I was what he wanted at that point. He got me in a position where he could call all the shots because of how my life was structured. Unfortunately for him he pushed things too far, with the wrong person, and I bailed out. We had misjudged each other, I guess. If he thought he could break me, he was very wrong.
Although I got myself out of it safe and sound, and in fact much better for having gone through the experience, I still kick myself about it. I should have seen it – why didn’t I see it? I should have been able to identify him for what he was. I should have followed my instincts. Right at the start, before we, or rather I, became emotionally involved, I had the feeling that I was putting my head in a tightening noose. I was a fool. I elected to engage in a construct so deeply that I found myself having to swallow a lot of shit and call it chocolate frosting, because admitting to what was happening would have meant to break my whole life apart.
Of course, I am kicking myself about kicking myself. There is a very good reason why I did not recognise my ex for what he was. I did not even hear about The Psychopath Test until last year, six years after I met him. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but to tell myself off for not using diagnostic tools I just did not have is rather daft.
It is rather peculiar, if you think about it, what we choose to teach our children. As a child I read about science and literature and art and religion. I was given free access to the combined knowledge of the ages, but had been taught virtually nothing about people and what makes them tick. I’d been taught about “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, written in the 18th century BC, but I’d never been taught how to recognise people who may hurt me. Yes, of course I could not have been taught in the 80s something that was developed in the 90s, but I’m willing to bet the farm that children are not taught it now.
Of course, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Diagnosing personality disorders is best done by professionals. Unfortunately, people are not routinely screened until the point when they do something wrong. Psychopaths walk amongst us unchecked and unidentified. Whether you let them in your life or not is your call.
Since the penny dropped for me, I have turned into a bit of a psychopath spotter. I found myself looking back through my life and found another psycho in my past. This is someone I had met in school. I had a huge crush on him, although we did not get past exchanging backrubs. For reasons unexplained he went through a phase when he enjoyed demonstrating how he could dislocate my shoulders or snap my neck if he wanted to. He never caused me any damage, but he was causing me increasing pain until one day I had enough. I seriously thought he was going to pop my shoulder and I do not do scared as well as I do angry, so I threw a cup of coffee at him. Unsurprisingly that did not go down well. He pretty much cut all contact with me there and then. I regretted it hugely at the time, although I did not feel at all guilty. A dislocated shoulder is not my idea of fun. I have not thought about him for at least fifteen years and it took me a few days to remember his name, but he was definitely the first psycho to engage my affections.
That fact worries me. Is there something wrong with me, that I am attracted to the wrong sort? Then again, maybe this is a lesson I now have learnt. There are two people vaguely involved in my work life who I know, for a fact, to feel the same level of emotional involvement and responsibility towards a person holding a tool that they feel towards the tool itself. The reason their involvement in my life is only vague is precisely the fact that I recognised that trait in them and refused to get drawn in too far. I did not want them to have too much control over my life, as I knew that they felt no empathy towards me. Friends of mine have not been as cautious, despite my panicky warnings. The charms of the psychopaths in question won over my arguments – but of course, being charming is what psychopaths are best at.
There is, of course, the danger that I might be seeing patterns that are not really there. Confirmation bias may be blinding me, in the same way that ignorance and emotional involvement were blinding me before. Do you know what, though? I don’t really care. Firstly, if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, chances are it is a duck. I might be wrong. It may be a beautiful swan who has a sore throat today. It may be a golden eagle whose parents did not support him so could not fulfil his potential, and may yet change with my support. Tough shit. Today it is acting duck-like, so it may as well be a duck for all intents and purposes. Ultimately, it if ACTS like a duck it is better for me to treat it as such. If someone shows no empathy, it does not matter a fig from a practical point of view whether it is a lifestyle choice, a personality disorder, a curable failing or just the result of a bad day. It is going to affect me just the same, isn’t it? People may yet surprise me and prove to me to be better than I think they are. For a change, though, for today, I elect to be safe rather than sorry.
 Levenson, M.; Kiehl, K.; Fitzpatrick, C. (1995). "Assessing psychopathic attributes in a noninstitutionalized population". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 151-158. Warning - I have not read the original article, because I am lazy.
Sunday, 3 February 2013
I was talking to a girlfriend about a guy, as one does. She said that he acted “like an ass”. I said he didn’t – that he had this problem and that issue, that this and that was going on, that there were lots of mitigating circumstances, and so on. Her response was wonderfully concise: “Did he hurt your feelings? Then he acted like an ass.”
That concept really hit me. Could you really measure people’s behaviour towards you based on the impact on your feelings? I’d never done that before. No, honestly, I’d never done it. Obviously, I felt the impact of people’s actions, behaviours and words, but I have never use that impact to then evaluate them. Isn’t it a bad thing to be judgemental? Doesn’t it make a difference if people have a valid reason for doing something, even inexcusable things?
But then again, my girlfriend, unlike me, is sussed. She knows how to live. She is one of the most successful people I know – successful according to my own standards, that is. She doesn’t live in a mansion or drive a Ferrari or have a butler. But she does a job she feels passionately about, she has a beautiful mind full of interesting facts and theories, she is sorted out well enough in the practical sense, and she is surrounded by love – somehow, she seems able to attract love like a flower attracts butterflies. Love just seems to want to go to her, and she can nurture it and spread it. Me? I’m rubbish at that. That set me off pondering. She is being a lot less tolerant than me, yet love comes to her. Is she onto something that I’ve missed?
Travel back in time to 1990. I was 15 and suffered from serious anorexia. Of course, back then it wasn’t a fashionable or even known condition, so nobody did a damn thing about it. I was in boarding school from Monday to Saturday and only visited my family on a Sunday, which made it easier for things to slip. Frankly, nobody much cared, and those who did preferred to ignore the issue than open up a can of worms. At any rate, one Sunday night I fell asleep and woke up Thursday morning. Now, I could have easily been classified as terminally feckless back then, but even I knew that passing out for 3 days was not a good sign. I took myself to the nearest hospital, where they were worried enough to take me in. I fell asleep, again, and woke up 3 days later. Once I woke up and resumed normal service, after a week of not doing anything with me they sent me home.
I was sitting in my mother’s living room, extremely dazed and confused. One of the side effects of continued starvation is that you can’t think straight – you just don’t have the energy. Your reaction time is also incredibly slow. Most of the times, really, by the time you muster the energy to react to something, it’s too late and it’s not worth the effort. Most things don’t really seem to be worth the effort when you’re busy trying to starve yourself to near-death. Anyway, I was staring quietly into space when my grandmother descended upon us. Being elderly and partially deaf she spoke so loudly you could hear her comfortably from outside the flat. There she was, next door in my mother’s kitchen, letting rip about me. “After all you’ve done for her, all you’ve sacrificed, this is how she repays you...” and so on and so forth. You see, I am an illegitimate child. I was born out of wedlock. My parents never got it together. For reasons that defy normal logic, this was considered by my family to be my fault, much like the resulting stain on the family’s honour. So the family story was that I’d ruined my mother’s life, and apparently now I was letting her down. All this was presented at an ear-splitting volume for the entertainment of our neighbours.
I sat there for a while as waves of verbal abuse washed over me. Then something clicked. I got up – and I can’t begin to explain to you what an effort that took. I toddled over to the kitchen. I opened the door and I said my most famous sentence to date: “Grandma? Fuck off.” My grandmother stared at me as if I’d sprouted horns. My mother started flapping and going “She does not mean it, she doesn’t know what she’s saying...” so I interjected again: “I do mean it. Fuck off.”
And those were the last words I ever spoke to the woman. She died a few years later, while I was abroad. My mother took weeks to muster the courage to tell me, because “she thought I would feel guilty.” I don’t get that. Guilty of what? I was the only person to ever stand up to my grandmother. I had put up with her behaviour towards me for 15 years, but she had pushed it too far and my tolerance had run out. I don’t believe I was unjustified in what I said, given the circumstances and our previous relationship. I would probably say it again today. I would like to believe that I could articulate myself much better now, but as a summary of my thoughts on the subject and given the heat of the moment I can’t fault it. But that’s not how my mother saw the situation – in her eyes, I was rude to my grandmother, she was now dead, therefore I should now feel guilty about my action.
In my mother’s world we can’t be angry at the dead, because they’re dead. Being dead means that everything you’ve ever done, however inexcusable, must now be forgiven. You mustn’t speak ill of the dead. In fact, the same applies when you’re terminally ill. Somehow, if you conveniently get a malignant tumour all the bad things you’ve ever done, from fraud to betrayal to child abuse, now need to be ignored. How can you judge the terminally ill?! They are already suffering.
Ah, but what about those who are suffering because of psychological issues? You can’t blame them either. They have reasons for their actions – they can’t help themselves. The same applies to those who have had bad past experiences, because the poor things have just never managed to get over them. They do their best. After the trauma they have been through, you have to cut them some slack. If someone is in any trouble now, well, of course they can’t be held accountable.
“They don’t mean it like that. They can’t help it.” My mother must be the original font of all tolerance. Throughout my childhood, every time someone remonstrated against somebody – a relative, a friend, a politician, a teacher that was getting too hands-on with the pupils, if you catch my drift – my mother could always wave the blame away. He doesn’t mean it like that. He can’t help it.
The problem is that everyone has a sob story. Everyone has suffered through some traumas. Everyone will die. Ok, people’s traumas can vary in their intensity – my dead dog might not be comparable with your ethnic cleansing, and so on – but everyone has to go through some shit. And the shit you go through should not justify you putting other people through more shit. The buck’s gotta stop somewhere.
So, logically, I think that my mother’s point of view is tosh. Tolerance up to a point is great, but at some point you must be able to make a stand. Really, though, have I moved away from that line of thinking? My girlfriend’s words have made me realise that I haven’t, not at all.
I can give you any number of examples. The boyfriend who, as soon as I told him that I loved him, decided he no longer wanted any sort of physical contact with me – he had a terrible fear of intimacy because of the way his father treated his mother, bless him, so I went out with him for a further two years. The one who worked part-time whilst I worked full-time, paid nothing towards the house yet expected me to do all of the housework, which he quadruplicated because he was an utter pig – he’d been neglected by his parents and brought up by his grandmother, who was very old-fashioned, the poor thing, so that’s what he was used to. Everyone’s favourite, the one who wanted to be in an open relationship so he could chase skirts but didn’t want me to talk to any males, and who eventually decided that becoming a raging alcoholic was the thing to do – well, where do I start? His life was a neverending series of traumas and tragedies. How could anyone expect him to do any better, under the circumstances?
They didn’t mean it. They couldn’t help it. That’s just how they were. So I justified and excused their behaviours for months or years, and only gave them the push when they did something extraordinarily bad. I discounted the impact on their actions on my feelings and on my life and put up with ridiculous amounts.
Yes, I’ve been an idiot, I realise it now. Had any of them behaved in a similar manner to any friend of mine, I’d have wanted to hang them up by their privates and gut them. I’m far less tolerant towards those who hurt my nearest and dearest. Showing understanding and compassion towards those who wrong me, though, doesn’t that make me a good person? Isn’t that what the Bible, Jesus, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama and all the GOOD people do?
The penny dropped today that no, there is a big difference between being tolerant, being understanding, being non-judgemental and failing to take care of yourself. Throughout my life, I’ve neglected one serious point. I’ve neglected to see myself as having the right to be treated properly. I’ve neglected the fact that when people engage into a relationship of any sort with you – whether they are your friends, relatives, partners, teachers – they also take on an implicit responsibility to treat you decently. No ifs, no buts, no excuses. If they fall short, if they hurt you in any way, then what they are doing is not right. Whether they can help it or not, it doesn’t make it right. It’s not a case of “universally right” either, as I don’t believe such a thing exists. It’s bad enough if it just isn’t right for you.
So yes, I am now planning to be less tolerant from now on. I am not planning to be less understanding of people’s circumstances or to start going about casting stones, as I know I’m far from perfect myself. But I plan to judge people’s actions based on their impact on me, and make plans as to their role in my life accordingly. I will be choosing the people in my life based on how they act towards me, regardless of any reasons or excuses they may have for their shortcomings or foibles. I am the person responsible for setting minimum standards of behaviour towards me. And if people believe me to be too stern, too unreasonable, too uncharitable, too intolerant – well, that may well be the case, and it might yet turn around and bite me in the back. I might find myself with less people around me, but I’m hoping that the people I will attract will be the ones who will enhance my life, not drain it. As of now, I choose to look after myself. I choose to be happy.
I found my happiness living with a raging alcoholic. This may sound rather counterintuitive, particularly as I’m not using the word “raging” casually. It wasn’t a lifestyle I enjoyed, and definitely not one I planned on taking on. However, it was during those overexciting months that I learnt how to be happy. Credit where it’s due, the experience did me a lot of good, and I still refer to the mode of thinking I developed then when all the chips are down.
It is a fine line, I guess, between personality traits and character flaws. I have always been a perfectionist, obsessive, unduly intense, and prone to excesses of introspection. These are great characteristics in the workplace, I guess, but they make for a pretty unhappy approach to daily life. I was the child in school for whom a 99% result was a failure, because you should be able to get 100% if you’d done it right. If you got 100%, that was nothing to be excited about as it was the minimum grade you should have aimed for. God forbid if I didn’t come to the top of everything. I was so competitive that most times I refused to compete unless I could win. I was also easily bored. I needed to be doing something at all times. I needed to have a project or purpose or something to excite me. I had to be inspired. I had to be involved in something that could absorb me totally. Humdrum, routine things and normal everyday life would make me morose. I spent most of my time dissatisfied and frustrated, either at myself, others or life in general.
An aspect of my perfectionism was that I had to make sure that I made the best decisions at all times. Of course, when you’re obsessive that means that you want to see all the possible angles, consequences and pitfalls. In the absence of a crystal ball, it becomes almost impossible to make any decisions whatsoever, as you can’t possibly have all the information. When I did make a decision I would routinely end up endlessly revisiting it. Had I done the best thing? I mean, the best thing ever? As circumstances changed or new aspects revealed themselves, naturally it often emerged that I could have done something differently. Off I’d go kicking myself in the backside, because I failed.
This seemed to change dramatically when I made my life’s crowning boo-boo. To cut a long story short, I gave up my job, house, and entire life really to run off with a circus worker. Yes, I ran off with the circus, with no prospect of a job. In my mid-thirties. I gave up my career, sold up my possessions and left all my friends, just like that. But hey, there were mitigating circumstances. I was dissatisfied with my work. My dog had died. I’d broken up with my boyfriend. On and on the list goes, but essentially I was fed up with things not being exciting or rewarding enough and decided that I wouldn’t just rock the apple cart, but push it off the nearest available cliff. Oh, and I was madly in love.
Unfortunately, it shortly emerged that my intended had a drinking problem. How he’d managed to keep it either under control or under wraps while he effectively ensnared me, I’ll never know. Within a period of weeks, he morphed from a loving, strong, supportive, caring man into a schizoid monster. Most evenings he would go off into the night, coming back after closing time off his face and spoiling for a fight. His confrontations with me were purely verbal, but those who say that “words will never hurt them” haven’t encountered a clever verbal assailant, or being subjected to out-of-control verbal rage. It is painful and it is frightening. Some nights he managed to pick a proper fight and I would have to deal with ambulances, police or the hospital. These were the good nights – on the bad nights he drank at home, and then I would not only have to put up with the after-effects of his drinking, but also with his dark descent down into the bottom of the glass. The mornings after would be spent tiptoeing around him, the bear with the sore head, whilst repairing any physical damage to the house and occasionally to him.
Now, under normal circumstances I agree with most people that the best way to live with alcoholism or aggression is to not live with them. Pack and go. Just get the hell out. Unfortunately, what most people conveniently forget is that when you’re living with an alcoholic, circumstances are usually entirely removed from normal. Nothing is free – not even your safety or your freedom. Every time you close a door you have to give up on whatever lays behind it. In my case, I stuck with it, quite pragmatically, until I judged that the danger I was facing was excessive and no longer justified by what I was getting out of staying there. But that’s another story.
The point is that my time living with an aggressive alcoholic was one of the happiest times in my life. In fact, it was when I learnt how to be happy. It was a case of needs must, I guess. The situation was really quite hard to manage, both from a practical and an emotional point of view. I needed to take very good care of my head in order not to get crushed. That was the primary objective – avoiding implosion. For once in my life, the focus of my life was to keep me ticking, to keep me sane and happy. All other considerations had to be shelved, because I knew how close I was to emotional collapse.
The strange beauty in living with a raging alcoholic is in the times when he’s not around. People who’ve always had a peaceful life won’t be able to relate to this. When your life is interspersed with moments of intense fear, the quiet times are just fantastic. I guess this would be a small reflection of the feeling people must experience in lulls during warfare. There is a mad carnival feeling to those quiet moments. You can enjoy the silence, the peace, the ability to relax into your home, into your skin. I learnt to value moments like having a cup of coffee with my dog – really learnt to notice it and appreciate it, to relish the tranquillity in it. I didn’t just bolt down my drink whilst thinking of 3000 other things, as I did before, as I too often do now. I was able to really pay attention to the experience and truly take pleasure in it. At that time I thought I’d never be able to be bored again, as there was such a joy to be felt in experiencing nothing happening.
I learnt to focus on a single moment. That truly is a trick. Like a camera, I’d just notice what was around me at that time. When you don’t know, but can reasonably fear, what the night will bring, anticipating the problems to come, borrowing trouble, can do you in. If you sit there fretting about what may come, it will consume you. At the same time, if you waste mental efforts in revisiting the hows and whys of how you got yourself in there, it will drain you down to nothing. Incidentally, the same pinpoint focus on the present is naturally generated by major confrontations. In danger situations, your body releases a chemical cocktail that helps you focus on and react to the here and now. Maybe repeated exposure to that mechanism made me able to engage it at will. I can’t be sure. What I do know is that I could suddenly really focus on whatever was around me. It felt very much like being a child again, looking at everything with fresh eyes. I could trip out just watching the sunlight play through leaves. Movies and books became real.
After a lifetime of multitasking, neurosis and introspection, living in the moment was a major buzz. Aside from being able to enjoy whatever you have or are experiencing, which you can’t do if you are not focusing on it, I also became able to switch off my timeline. I wasn’t thinking about tomorrow, yesterday, all that could be and isn’t, regrets, or even what was on my to-do list. I literally just concentrated on what was around me – the food on my plate, the sunshine, a movie, the rain, anything. When you know that something horrible may happen within hours and you remember that something horrible happened just hours ago, you must be able to switch off the fear and focus on the fact that nothing is happening now. If you can’t, all you will experience is pain from what happened and fear for what may happen yet.
I suppose that, in a way, this is the sort of mental exercise advocated in samurai movies. You know something awful will probably happen, but you do not dwell on it, because ultimately something awful will eventually happen to us all. Like it or not, life is a terminal disease. We will all die. Unless you are planning a suicide pact, love encompasses eventual loss from the word go. Either your loved ones will lose you, or you will lose them. I have always been conscious of my mortality – not purely aware of it in an academic level, but actually felt the death to come in my bones. I prefer the Viking approach to death. They believed in death being predestined and completely outside of your control. All you could control was the way you lived. Although I don’t believe in their mythology, I always found it useful and have tried to live by it. However, my all-time favourite quote on death, from “Kingdom of Heaven”, is: “all death is certain.” And that is the bottom line. Whether you believe in life after death or not, death is a bridge we all must cross. Once you accept the inevitability of death, for yourself and everyone you know and love, everything else becomes comparatively easy to deal with. Everything becomes temporary. One way or the other, everything will end, whether you like it or not. So you better enjoy it now if it’s good, as much as you can, and if it’s horrible you can remind yourself that it’s temporary. You suddenly find yourself not holding onto things so tightly, because everything is temporary. You can brush things aside, forget them and move on, taking with you only what you decide to take.
There was another flipside of living with alcoholism. The episodes can be truly awful, but afterwards you can bask in the bizarre glory of having survived them. Yes, it would be rather nice if the brown stuff hadn’t hit the fan, but look, it did, and you dealt with it, and you’re still here, still standing, and able to carve a cautious smile, able to move on from it and find some joy. There is an immense strength in that, and I relished that hugely. I suppose it came of always doubting my abilities to cope I always needed to prove myself, and whatever I did I was never able to convince myself I could manage. Suddenly, I was coping all the time. I’d rather not have had to cope, but the fact that I was doing it made me feel very competent, very strong.`
It may seem a strange way to find your happiness. But for someone who has never been fully aware, never fully relaxed or confident or content, always yearning for more, learning to grab hold of any moment which isn’t awful and notice the beauty in it is a miracle. I wasn’t hoping, wishing, regretting, remembering, anticipating or projecting. I was in the here and now, feeling the sunlight on my face, tasting that pizza, listening to music or just noise or just silence. I was present in my experience, which, however humdrum, is unique because you never get a chance to relive a single moment.
I wish I could tell you that I maintained that mental agility, but it isn’t true. I guess that like any other skill, if you don’t use it you lose it. Too often, again, I find myself eating or drinking without tasting, hearing without listening, and getting embroiled in pointless mental exercises that take me away from the present moment into the past, the future or alternative realities. But when I remember, when I try hard, I can still isolate that feeling. I am here and it is now, and the bombs are not falling – but they will fall, sometime, some day, so we must enjoy the here and now.
The Ghosts of Christmases Past, for reasons unexplained, start haunting me as soon as autumn starts. Sometimes in September, when summer starts tipping over into winter and nature suddenly changes tack, a small, still unidentified switch goes off and I start listening to Christmas music. By November I’ve normally gotten it out of my system, and Christmas usually passes like any other day. This is rather the problem, you see. Christmas being just another day.
It is usually current situations that cause me to hide from Christmas, to ignore that it is a big deal, or to try and make the best of it, to find a point of view that makes it manageable. Of course, it is past situations that make it utterly unmanageable and such a big deal. I remember as a very young child not being able to understand why we couldn’t have Christmas every day – and, bizarrely for a young child, I didn’t mean the presents and food and Asterix on the telly. At Christmas everyone loved everyone, allegedly; why couldn’t we do this every day? Why did it have to stop? But of course it had never started, and we were all just engaging in a complicated production in which I had the mixed roles of lynchpin and performing monkey.
I was the only child in an extended yet broken family of people who hated each other. My mother, her sister and my grandmother just did not get on. There was so much resentment, hatred and guilt coursing between them that it poisoned the air around them. The men – my grandfather and my uncle, as my father had conceived me in August and ran off before the first Christmas had reared its ugly family head – only had minor roles. They were routinely dragged into the women’s continued war as scapegoats, casualties or weapons, but never actually fought.
It was a cold war, with recurrent small incidents of open fighting. Not-so-casual barbed comments would spark short yet explosive episodes. My grandmother always won, because, like Stalin, she fought with no regards for human casualties. Yet the victories didn’t bring an end to the conflict because boundaries between the warring parties would not get redrawn. There would be no treaties. Nobody would concede territories or build fortifications, because nobody would admit that it was a war. So it went on and on and on. You could not fall out fully or just leave each other alone, because “we’re family” and families have to stick together; yet you could not get on, so you continued with the friction and sniper attacks and occasional battles. Christmas was one of the casualties.
I didn’t understand any of this when I was a child. All I know is that mine and my mother’s Christmas was fragmented to the point of schizophrenia. We woke up in the morning and had our Christmas – of cuddles and kisses and pretending the world outside wasn’t so cold and mean and out to get us. Then we went to church, when I was still too young to go to midnight mass, and had our second Christmas, our community Christmas, even though we were interlopers there. We snuck in, really. My mother was an unmarried mother and I was a bastard child and that would never go away. But nobody knew, so we snuck in and sang the songs and rejoiced in the fact that even though our sins, the stain upon my birth, were still there today, one day they may yet be washed away.
Then we had to visit grandmother. We just had to. When my grandfather was still alive, this was quite tolerable. He was the only adult I’ve ever met fully glad I was alive, and we got on well. I was a bit much for him at times, him being already very old when I was born, but he loved me and I loved him. It was the only love I had that didn’t come with strings attached, that demanded no obligations. It was a love I didn’t have to earn – he loved me when I was good and when I was bad. He just loved me. We didn’t have much in common, I guess, this man from a small village far away who’d come from a solid family and fought two world wars, and this cuckoo child from the suburbs who’d not seen anything other than the concrete jungle and the war at home. But we loved each other fully and fiercely, and he taught me to whistle and gave me pink sweeties and kept new coins for me in a little metal tin, not because of the value of them but because he knew that I liked shiny things.
We could make a true Christmas together, me and my granddad. We’d go into the storage room and we would have what I remember as quiet times together, which probably didn’t seem quite so quiet to an unwell man in his late 80’s. He would show me old household things, scales or pens or wallets, and explain to me how they worked. I’d show him my collection of deformed Barbies and three-legged horses and told him stories of their adventures. The women would be in the kitchen, my grandmother busy flailing my mother and auntie to ribbons with what she would say and how she would say it, but we could ignore that. We hid in corners, together, as long as we could. We did that anyway – he’d lived hidden in corners all his life, I guess, to keep away from the women’s conflict. At Christmas it was easier, because of all the cooking and setting of the table and so on, but we always made time to hide with each other anyway. Of course, the time would come for the actual Christmas meal and something would go wrong. I would spill something, splash some sauce from my spaghetti over the starkly white linen tablecloth, or refuse to drink my watered wine, and my grandmother would kick off. But that was just ground state, and we ignored that too.
He died when I was four, and Christmas died with him. We didn’t go to my grandmother after that. They all came around to my mother’s, which put her under huge pressure as, of course, she could never do things quite right for my grandmother’s taste and didn’t have enough money to do things up to my auntie’s standards. In fairness, it must have been a pressure just to find the money to feed them all, as we really were poor. We were poor to the point that I was taught to unwrap my presents by carefully cutting out the cellotape, so the wrapping paper could be reused the following year. But that was our own fault – hers for falling into sin and bearing the fruit, and mine just for being born – so it had to be borne, too. Christmases became brittle, chaotic affairs, with nowhere for me to hide in our one-bedroom flat. Even if I could hide, I had no allies left. My grandfather had gone to his father’s, to a place where he could hopefully sit in peace without having to hide from war, but he’d left me behind, the cuckoo child, in the care of people who either didn’t or couldn’t care.
We had to have Christmas because of me, allegedly. The fact that I would have much preferred to be hidden in a wardrobe on my own than exposed to hatred in its most warped form didn’t matter. We were a family, there was a child, so we had to have a proper Christmas.
I meant it about the wardrobe, by the way. I don’t remember the actual event. I don’t know if I was too young or it was just too much of a big deal, but I have no memories of it, bar the wardrobe. Apparently during our first Christmas without my grandfather war broke over the dinner table. My auntie and grandmother started a proper screaming match, and they could scream. My mother told me that I ran off in floods of tears and hid in the wardrobe, where my mother’s dressing gown was kept. That was the dressing gown she’d left behind for me to cuddle when she was in hospital with cancer. She called it the “magic gown” and gave it to me specifically, because it was soft and smelled of her and when I put it on it would be like her holding me. It was my comfort blanket, I guess.
So there I was, in the wardrobe, hugging the magic gown. And out there my mother, for once, fought for me. Apparently she tore them both a fresh one because they’d ruined Christmas for me. Then and only then she got me out of the wardrobe.
That was the end of our joint family Christmas lunches. From that day onwards, we had four Christmases. First just the two of us, then in church, then lunch at ours with my grandmother, then going over to my auntie and uncle to exchange presents, which they were deemed capable of doing without Armageddon taking place. Then everyone would finally go off and we could declare an end to this year’s production. It felt more like a passion play, in truth, than a nativity scene. We had to go through Christmas without anything going off too drastically and terminally. There was a sense of relief, rather than loss, the day after, as if we’d survived a potentially catastrophic event.
This may make it sound a very stark affair, which it wasn’t. Harrowing, perhaps, but not stark. As the only child I was showered with gifts, even though my mother always struggled for money. I am guessing most of them were relatively small, from a financial point of view, but they were big for me. I really treasured them. She must have saved for months to make my Christmas special. My grandmother, I believe, just gave her a bit of money to buy me things, as she wasn’t really approving of me, the exchange of presents and, in fact, anything that gave anyone unwarranted joy. Gifts from my auntie were always difficult, as they were usually entirely unsuitable, pointless and sometimes unpleasant. However, I had to pretend I liked them, at the same time as not letting on that I knew that they came from her and not from Santa. Managing grownup egos and delusions can be quite complicated. Any which way you slice it, however, it wasn’t fun. It was sad and painful, with the knowledge of what Christmas should be creating a feeling of unbearable loss.
This is what most Christmases have been for me, throughout my life. I do not know how the ideal of Christmas, the concept of what it should be and isn’t, ever got into my head. I do not know whether it is my own construct, some primeval archetype or a Hollywood implant, but there it is. Christmas should be about the people you love the most all and who love you the most gathered together under one roof, in peace. Christmas = love + peace. More specifically, it’s family love and domestic bliss all wrapped up in a parcel of fairy lights and mistletoe. I’ve only ever come close to it once, and that was only recently, yet the dream of it has haunted and hurt me every year when things did not pan out like that.
I have had decent Christmases, don’t get me wrong. There have been times when I have managed to gather with equally not-quite-orphaned people I loved, and make a celebration of us being together. The hook of missing family never fully ceases to tug at your heart, but we could ignore it for a while and bravely pretend that this was what we wanted, rather than all we could have.
Some Christmases have been decent, only slightly marred by circumstances. My first Christmas with my husband found us as allies. Both of us, utterly clueless, played house and fought against the pressure of our respective families, who demanded Christmas from us even though they couldn’t make a Christmas for or with us. Christmases with friends at University were often restful affairs, when I gave myself permission to forget books, exams, achievements and money worries for a day – sometimes two, if the work allowed – and have a break, a whole day of just chilling. A Christmas with a boyfriend, at his house, found me suddenly cast in the role of house-not-quite-wife, cooking a meal for a whole load of us, just gathered around in friendship. They have been alright, but not quite right.
Some Christmases have been particularly awful. My worst Christmas ever to date was probably my 17th, the one spent travelling back from Spain. I was supposed to be spending the holidays travelling around Spain, on my own, which I was more than happy with. For a change I had enough money. I would be sleeping indoors, in youth hostels, and travelling by train rather than hitchhiking. It was going to be a wonderful adventure, yet a lot safer and more comfortable than my life normally was. Admittedly, the Christmas music and general festive cheer were really getting to me – they were impossible to ignore and highlighted painfully what I didn’t have. Regardless, I was getting on fine. Then I rang my mother on Christmas Eve. In hysterics, she screamed that she was ill, that I needed to come home right then. In tears myself, I rushed off to the hostel, got my stuff together and got on the first train home. I ended up spending the night at a train station at the border between Spain and France, waiting for the next train, huddled in a corner, mindful of the drunken men at the station bar and of a random, incredibly large black dog that was roaming around on its own. I got home very late on Christmas Day, having had next to no sleep or food for over 24 hours. My mother opened the door, said smiling to me “I’m having a nervous breakdown”, and just walked off. That was it. There was nothing actually wrong with her; she just wanted me “home”. I was stuck there, having used up my travel money, until my boarding school opened again in January. We spent a memorable time, me seething with resentment and avoiding her like the plague and her pretending that everything was just peachy.
Other Christmases have been marred by people’s good intentions. One must learn about the quasi-orphan’s Christmas No-Nos, the main one being piggybacking on another family’s Christmas. It happened to me, quite by accident, the following year. I was supposed to spend a recuperating, quiet if lonely Christmas hiding out at a friend’s summer house in the country. I was all set up and as content as I could be – I had a lot of books and had just discovered St Matthew’s Passion by Bach. There was bread in the cupboard, a couple of wine bottles and the house was nearly heated. What more could a girl need? I rang my friend to check in with her and her parents asked me to go over for Christmas. I could not say no, but really I should have. They were utterly wonderful and made me very welcome. We had a lovely time, but it was their lovely time, their lovely family time, that I was encroaching upon. Again, it just highlighted what I did not have, plus it made me feel guilty about diminishing their experience. Above all, I guess, there was the feeling of being a charity case. They made space for me in their family because I didn’t have one of my own. They shared their love with the unloved. It was extremely kind of them, but awful for me.
If you can’t be with the right people, or with people in the right way, it is better to be without them altogether. I truly hold this as a basic Christmas rule – have your own, and do it properly, or don’t have one at all. Stay on your own. Lick your wounds. Pretend it’s January already. Let everyone else enjoy their Christmases, any way they want to, and reappear in the New Year.
I tried to explain this to one of my exes, the separated father of two lovely boys. The first year, when we were freshly together, I understood why he didn’t want me involved in their Christmas – one of the two the boys were going to have, as they naturally had to have one at their mummy’s too. The boys’ lives were complicated enough as it was, it was too soon for them to have me involved in such a major festivity, and there was always the risk of their mother having a hissy fit at an interloper entering their family circle. So I spent Christmas morning with him and disappeared before the boys arrived for the afternoon. It made sense, and wasn’t difficult. The following year, though, when the same happened again, even though the boys knew me closely by now and their mother had worked out what was going on months before, then it was difficult. But it wasn’t deemed appropriate for me to be with them, so I hovered on their outskirt of their family Christmas. The worst thing was the boys asking me why I wasn’t going around for dinner, as I did virtually every weekend they were there. I can’t remember what excuse I made. I didn’t want them to feel that it was their fault, but I could not blame it on their father either. I think I said that I had to work.
The year after, when things were clearly going to be repeating themselves on the same pattern, I decided it was quite simply unhealthy for me to stick around. I told the guy that I wanted to go away with my dogs for a few days; I tried to explain to him that as I could not be with them, I needed to be without them. This did not go down well. I guess I should have been there to be girlfriend-on-tap for him, for when he needed or wanted me. The fact that the situation hurt me didn’t seem to come into it. We didn’t last long after that.
Of course, it isn’t the bad Christmases that really haunt you. Those just pass and turn into bad memories, like any other semi-traumatic event. The good ones, though, they never go away. They haunt you forever. My best Christmas ever was spent in a circus wagon parked at the heart of Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. I had it all. I was with the man I loved more than anyone in the world, his gorgeous, funny, lovely baby girl, and my two dogs. All that love under one roof melted my heart so often that I thought it would burst; I didn’t know how to handle that much happiness. I had been able to give up the job I had hated for years to become a stay-at-home (ok, stay-in-caravan) partner. My life rotated around taking care of those I loved. That was heaven on its own. Plus we were staying in an incredibly nice part of London and surrounded by, well, Christmas. They build a miniature village on Hyde Park, with rides and stalls selling Christmas goods, food and mulled wine. I didn’t care about what they sold, or the rides, but the music and the atmosphere and the smiling people walking hand in hand, that got right into my heart. It really was a wonderland. I had everything. It was a dream-come-true. And of course, like all dreams it ended, rather abruptly, and I was metaphorically thrown out in the middle of a bitter winter.
Always winter, never Christmas. C. S. Lewis had it right, it is a terrible thing. Christmas is the bright light that helps us navigate through the dark months, the promise of warmth that keeps us soldiering on through the cold.
I have made some very stupid decisions for the sake of a Christmas. Twice I left jobs and homes at very short notice to be with my loved one that bit earlier, just so we could have Christmas together. On the second of these occasions I literally upped and left, my van pulling a caravan with the entirety of my worldly belonging and nowhere to go. My then boss, a circus proprietor, had refused to give me a day off over the Christmas period so I could visit my ex-stepdaughter. I didn’t particularly want Christmas day off; any day would have done. I just needed to see her. He did not as such say no; what he said was that December was too busy, January didn’t look good either and in February we would be getting ready to get the show on the road, so it definitely wasn’t going to happen then. I wanted to be with my baby girl, even if for only a brief while, so I hitched my wagon and scarpered while he was at the post office. I did see her on Christmas day, as it turned out. I ended up with no job and nowhere to go, but to this day I cannot regret it, because I got to see her smile on Christmas morning.
Christmas has a power over me. It grips my heart and seemingly can stop my brain from functioning. The irony is fabulous. Me, a bastard whose life was shaped from an early age by being a bastard, spending nearly a quarter of the year every year getting myself tied up in knots over a festivity allegedly celebrating the birth of another bastard. If only my mother had retained her claim to virginity! Things could have been so different. I have no idea how he might have felt, that little baby in the manger, adored and wanted not only by his nearest and dearest, but by strangers too. I do not know that feeling. He was a lucky bastard. But then again, he got crucified at Easter, so maybe it makes no difference in the long run and all bastards must pay for others’ sins. At least I only pay for it in bad weather, while he had his spring ruined.
I can’t get away from it. The celebration of the birth of this baby boy I don’t believe in, which symbolises a process of redemption I do not agree with, takes on monstrous proportion and eats up the entire season that precedes it. Maybe one day I will work it out, I will figure the cause of its hold on me and break it, and Christmas will mean nothing to me. Maybe I will become one of those people who complain about the waste and commercialism and tackiness of it, instead of becoming misty-eyed at the sight of the poorest display of Christmas lights. But not this year, my friend, not this year.