“A Scarily High Tolerance for Abuse”

That is something my therapist said to me at a session shortly before the new year. Fortunatly, she was referring to the fact that I seemed to be losing it.

In one of those perfect storms that happen so frequently in life, 3 unrelated incidents have converged and brought the observation to mind.

A mention of a woman in what would seem to be a physically comfortable but mentally unbearable relationship reminded me of my bad boyfriend history. I’ve been in two really lousy relationships, one abusive on every level, the other born of staggering incompatibility glossed over by intense physical attraction. In both situations, my self-image, historically a bit shaky (“I rock! I’m worthless! I’m worthless because I rock!”), was at a slip-it-under-the-door level. Blame it on genetics – from what I’ve learned, sub-threshold bipolar lurks in the DNA, though full-blown bi-polar seems to be an overcommitment for all but a brave few – or on any number of things. Who cares? When you believe that you have to humbly take that shit, you unfortunately might as well put a giant sign on yourself that says, “Abuse me! Really! I won’t hardly fight back.” It’s unfathomable to people looking at certain situations why anyone in that position wouldn’t just pack up and leave, but … they don’t.

Solid support got me out both times, but damn, it must have been frustrating to watch. In both cases, I wouldn’t listen, believing that I loved the controller. What I really felt was a bizarre tangle of emotions that would give some analyst a very large and lengthy headache should she be foolish enough to try to decode it. But I did break free, both times, painfully but (cliche alert) ultimately stronger. The fact that the first relationship could have left me actually dead is not lost on me. I’m grateful to be alive.

And while the experience has given me an empathy with people in the same situation, it has also given me some despair. Nothing I or anyone else can say or do will get anyone out of a bad relationship except for the person who’s in it. She has to just say, fuck you, enough, and she has to believe it enough, if only for the few minutes it takes to walk out the door.

But that realization – that it’s not my problem – is the second part of storm, and it’s probably the most revelatory. Things around the house and the office that at one time would have driven me nuts and kept me awake…just…don’t any more. I still will lose sleep over what I consider a direct attack, but I used to perceive those, as well as indirect ones, around every corner. Geez, I took almost everything personally.

One of my favorite poems is this one by Stephen Crane:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

But I didn’t really believe it, clearly, at least not as it applied to me. Now I do. Suddenly, I am able to live (at least more than half the time) my mother’s dictum, “We wouldn’t worry so much about what other people think about us if we realized how little they do.” I always sagely nodded when she said it, but somehow, in the last month, it got into my bones.

Which is why the last storm element – an angry communication so nicely written that I had to let it sink in before I realized how angry it was – is inspiring in me a healthy dose of anger in return. Time was, oh say about a month or so ago, that I would have immediately felt an obligation to fix things. I don’t now. Basically, what seems to be the main point of contention is simply untrue. In the past, I wouldn’t have rested until I straightened things out and made sure my perception was known. Somehow, I understand this time that, if the person didn’t get that perception until now, nothing I say will make any difference. If people want to insist on believing things about me that aren’t true…it’s their loss. I’m a great friend, but if you don’t agree, that’s your decision. I have nothing to do with it.

After all, my rush to mend, my willingness to always say I was wrong, my instinct to smooth things over, was really a kind of arrogance, to make myself the center of attention, to get points for being so tolerant, so humble, so forgiving. Screw that. There is so much I neither can nor should fix. There are things that are intolerable, and to tolerate them is to be a jerk. And forgiveness is great unless it’s really just a way to take more abuse, which I think mine has often been. I’m working on that part.

I like this me. It’s so much easier to live with. It’s at once lighter and more grounded.

Here’s hoping it sticks.

3 thoughts on ““A Scarily High Tolerance for Abuse”

  1. A corollary to the Steven Crane poem, perhaps, from Ani DiFranco:

    The world owes us nothing;

    We owe each other the world.

    Which doesn’t necessarily mean we need to make everything right with everyone who invades our space with some incompatible agenda. We need to pick our battles, and accept the fact that we will not be able to reconcile with some folks.

  2. Pingback: Oh, the Dramma | Nanarama

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