Dreams and Friday blogging
I have been thinking about my emotions lately, how they seem to be more pointed lately, bigger, harder to shake. Memories come up and make me nauseous instead of annoyed. Every time I find myself struggling to describe how I feel, I try replacing every long-winded explanation with the word “anger” and find it fits, and it fits hard and fast and overwhelming. Most of my life, I considered overwhelming emotions as evidence that I was losing control, going crazy. Focusing too hard on a bad feeling just presaged panic attacks and fear and fear and fear, and then, my god, everybody will know that I don’t have my shit together, that I never have. That feeling still comes up, less strong than it’s been, and I try to shake it. I’m trying to replace that old habit with the knowledge that I’m experiencing more difficulty managing my emotions because I’m better enough to cope with the unmanageable and messy and frightening.
I was spending some time re-reading one of my favorite books, Addictive Thinking, by Abraham Twerski. The book is meant to identify and describe what 12-steppers will recognize as “stinkin’ thinkin’,” the idea that most of your problems are rooted in bad thinking patterns, and that indulging and succumbing to those patterns is a prelude to and a maintenance of almost any other serious mental disease. Twerski also spends some time talking about how the people surrounding addicts start to acquire the same thinking patterns, because it’s the only way to make sense of the crazy things this person is doing, and people want their lives to make sense. This kind of thinking pattern is most obvious in people with chemical dependencies and their friends and family, but you can probably recognize a degree of it in yourself and anybody else in your life who has ever said something that fogged you up and made you seriously doubt your own perceptions of reality. At my job, we work with traumatized children, and there’s a lot of discussion about how to understand what a child is telling you, how serious it is, whether they are experiencing an internal problem or if somebody external has done something to them. When we want to understand the implications of something that’s been said or done, to get to it quick we just ask, “How did it feel? Did it feel okay or did it feel icky? Where did it feel icky?” You can put it in grown-up terms and say, obviously they were preying on my inadequacies by using this particular manipulative effort, or you can just say, it made me feel icky in my tummy, and trust your tummy knows what’s up. If somebody has ever given you an explanation for their behavior that made you feel icky, that’s somebody who was using dysfunctional thinking patterns, and was trying to make you use them, too. That’s why you felt so yuck.
I was reading a section where Twerski was talking about the oversensitivity of addicts, and the sense of entitlement that is really just the twin to low self-esteem. Have you ever listened to somebody list off all the trials in their lives, all the difficulties they have to endure, all the people who mistreat them, all the burdens of living? Did you find yourself sympathizing with them? Then, later, did you think, now wait a fucking second, I put up with all that shit, too, but I don’t sit around crying so hard about it I have to drink or have to act like an asshole or have to get all the attention all the time to cope. When addicts get into that kind of dysfunctional thinking, it’s really because their egos are so bruised already, they think so little of themselves and what they’re worth, that they’re unable to stand up to any kind of further frustration. Everything is taken personally. The basic daily demands of living seems like too much to expect of somebody who obviously cannot handle them. They don’t see that other people can handle them just fine, that there must be something wrong with them instead of the demands. They just see that people keep expecting them to do things they obviously cannot, and so people and the world must hate them. Part of recovery is removing those self-pitying trains of thought, and the very concept of what you do and don’t deserve from the things in life you can’t control.
In the book, Twerski describes therapy with a woman who was angry and upset that every time she seemed to get her recovery on track, every time she seemed to get her shit together, something new would happen to fuck it all up. After going through these things one by one, Twerski pointed out that each of the things happening that frustrated her consisted of new demands being made on her. Before she could launch into how much she resented demands, he pointed out that the reasons these demands were being made on her was because she was better. People who had avoided confiding in her before because they could see how broken she was and unable to bear interpersonal contact now saw her as a dependable and worthwhile friend. Employers who had avoided giving her certain assignments because they doubted her ability to perform now considered her a great worker. Accepting each new demand caused her pain and frustration, but they were also symbols of how much progress she had made, that she could bear up under another demand, and that other people saw this. If she couldn’t bear the new demands, she simply wouldn’t bear them. But the fact that she could, even if it was difficult, meant that she was, in fact, better.
Humans are remarkable and complex little creatures, and they are only able to take what they’re able to take. Beyond that, there are all sorts of defense mechanisms that kick in. I remember once lamenting to my therapist about all the years wasted with my ex-husband, how I wish I’d left earlier. She said she thought that regret was a pretty integral part of healing, because it allows you to see where your mistakes were, and learn from them. But she also pointed out that if I could have, I would have. I can see now in retrospect that there was nothing keeping me from walking away from him, but at the time there seemed like several iron-clad bars that had to be knocked down. Once I had knocked them all down, I left. Once I could, I did. I see now that those iron-clad bars were of his and my own making, that they didn’t really exist, but they did at the time, and until they were gone I couldn’t leave. When I could, I did. I only dealt with what I could handle at the time.
I also spoke to my therapist once about Sunny, a friend of mine with whom I’ve had some trouble maintaining a friendship. Sunny’s a good person. She’s a very good person, and she’s been abused horribly in her life, is still being abused. Over the last year or so, getting out of this relationship with my ex, cutting out the other bad people in my life, I’ve realized I’m not able to cope with having abused people in my life. I wish I could, I feel like that would give me some really awesome crown of super nice and perfect lady, but I can’t. It’s what happened with Polar, and it’s what happened with Sunny. They’re both good people, and I hope they get out of the bad they’re in. But until they do, I don’t feel like I can trust them or count on them. Not because they’re untrustworthy at heart, but because they’re unwilling and unable to get out of situations and relationships that cause them to constantly negotiate and compromise basic safety and survival. And people who are doing their best to survive need to focus on themselves and meeting the demands of the people who are compromising their survival. They can’t meet your demands, too.
What happened with Polar is another story for another time. What happened with Sunny, too, has a lot of ins and outs. But it came down to me not being able to communicate with her. There were things it just seemed she was unwilling to talk about. Which is fine. But she wasn’t able to tell me, I won’t talk about these things. I don’t want them brought up. I can’t respond to them. She would just shut down, stop talking, move away, and feign ignorance when I pointed out she was doing these things. It’s probably unfair to say “feign” ignorance; in some ways she was probably very ignorant of the way she shut down like a brick wall when something she couldn’t handle came up, because she’d had to learn how to do that so early in her life. In some ways, she was probably enormously aware of it, the way you are aware of your safety blanket, but to confront that behavior would be to confront all the reasons she had developed it, and all the reasons she still had it, which would be to subvert the purpose of it entirely. And beyond the brick wall, I found that Sunny’s stories changed pretty consistently. One day, her life would be like this; the next, it was like that. If confronted about something, there would be a new story I had never heard to explain why it wasn’t what I thought it was. If I persisted, she would get angry and say some shitty things about my character to throw me off track. I had to either come to the conclusion that she was lying to me, or that her life was really great and perfect and she was only sharing the shitty parts with me, the parts that made me think she was still being abused, the parts that made me panicky and afraid. But I wasn’t allowed to share those panicky and afraid emotions with her without having her shut down or starting a fight.
I don’t think she was lying to me, or trying to hurt me. I think people are complicated enough that one day it’s this, the next day it’s that, and sometimes it’s something else entirely. But I got the feeling she was just feeding me whatever perspective of the story she thought would smooth things over, keep us from discussing “your mother is evil and your father’s worthless and your boyfriend’s abusive and your friends are too and holy shit I can’t fucking take it.” And when those things didn’t work, her last desperate gamble was to throw sand in my face and make me think that my asking was something wrong with me. I could understand everything she was doing, and if I had taken it and persisted gently maybe something could have been done. But understanding what was happening didn’t make it less painful for me to be shut out and told there was something wrong with me. She was brick walling me the same way she brick walled the people who actively sought to abuse her, attempting to manage me in the same ways she sought to manage the abusive people in her life, and I couldn’t deal with it. There was the way it made me feel, which was awful, and crazy, and wrong, and unable to confide in her about my feelings that she couldn’t accept, and there was also the way it made me distrust her as a friend. Okay, this is the story she’s telling me today; what’s the story she’s telling my ex tomorrow? And is she telling him something I told her, not because she’s a gossipy person, but because she needs to survive?
But my therapist pointed out, the thing she’s doing with you, don’t you think she’ll do that with everybody? If she could change, she would. But if she can’t, you can trust that she’s going to brick wall everybody equally, because that’s her best option right now, with the options she thinks she has. So if you can’t get her to talk honestly with you, you can trust she’s not talking honestly with your ex. You can trust that she’ll only allow others to give her what she can take, and shut herself down otherwise.
I think these days my own brick wall is crumbling more and more. The way I used to manage my feelings, throw them off track, blank face them, let memories play before my eyes like a movie and not something to do with me, all that’s starting to fade away now. And I’m left with a really icky feeling. All the abuse that I couldn’t call abuse at the time, all the things that I knew were viscerally wrong. At the time, I experienced those feelings objectively, like I was doped up with novacaine. I could perceive pressure, but no feeling, no needle, no drill. Now it’s coming upon me slowly, those many years unfolding bit by bit, feeling by feeling. I’m finding emotions bundled up in places I didn’t expect them, directed in ways I never looked. It’s coming through most clearly in my dreams.
Yesterday, I came home and just slept. Slept after dinner, slept till bedtime, went to bed and slept some more. I think my brain must have just needed a reboot. Every time I woke up and started thinking about all the other things I could and should be doing, nothing was as compelling as sleeping some more. Not even playing Oblivion.
Lately I have been having dreams about my bear cheating on me, or disapproving of me, or doing something otherwise hurtful. At first I wondered, is my psyche trying to tell me something about my relationship? Is something wrong? Then I did what I have been doing lately. I thought of all the feelings the dreams have evoked, the complicated emotions, the complex interpretations, and replaced it all with anger. Instead of saying, “My psyche is telling me (something long-winded) about my relationship,” I said, “My psyche is telling me I’m angry about my relationship.” And it clicked. And as soon as it clicked, so did the icky feeling.
I’m not given to a lot of Freudian dream interpretation. But I had one professor explain it to me really well; she said, you don’t need to be trained to interpret dreams. You just ask a person, “How did this make you feel?” and when they tell you, you ask them, “What else in your life makes you feel this way?” And voila, you now know what that thing in the dream represented. If you want to know why a certain figure or event was chosen in your brain to represent a real figure or event, often it’s because your subconscious will pick less frightening things to mask the more frightening ones you aren’t able to confront. I remember once many years ago, when I didn’t want to admit how strong my feelings were for Gregory, I had a dirty dirty sex and love dream about some guy in my Psych class that I had a minor crush on. I woke up thinking about the dream, and thinking about Gregory, and when I got to class I saw the guy and it immediately sank in, “This wasn’t about you, guy. I haven’t even thought about you since I woke up. You were just the convenient face for how I feel about Gregory.”
I think I’ve been dreaming about my bear doing things that make me angry and sad and frightened and upset because I’m starting to feel those things more deeply about my ex. I’m starting to feel strong enough to hate, and it requires strength, because I have got a lot of hate in me. Many compounded years. And it’s easier to experience those feelings in relation to my bear because he’s safe. Were he to ever do something hurtful to me, I could talk to him about it. He would try to make it better. If I were to dream about these things with Mr. Flint’s face in them, then I would simply be dreaming about things that have actually happened to me, times Mr. Flint demanded a threesome or sex I didn’t want and belittled and insulted me when I said no, and I would end up feeling as powerless and worthless as I did in reality. With my bear’s face attached, I can feel angry, I can feel sad, I can feel hate, because I know he can take those things, and won’t hurt me for feeling them.
A little while ago I was talking to my bear about Mr. Flint’s parents, and found myself giving a long explanation of some of my feelings toward them. It didn’t quite click. So I replaced the long explanation with the word “anger,” and there it was. I am so angry at them. I didn’t expect it, and it didn’t become clear until my dream last night, which is what I meant to write about when I started blogging:
This dream started out like a bad Dylan Dog comic. There was a couple who had broken into an empty house to make out. They heard a scary noise. Oh thank god it was only a cat. Except now there’s more noise and OH MY GOD HEADLESS ZOMBIE. They ran like fuck, but it was a TELEPORTING headless zombie, with a sword and leather pants. So they were cut down as the camera panned off to the cat, licking its paws delicately.
The dream kind of rampaged around not making sense in my brain, but here’s what I was able to pick up. There was some great evil in the world. The teleporting headless zombie was its servant. Me and three other friends were destined to destroy it. If we couldn’t, it would blow up the planet. At the end of the dream, we ended up in Mr. Flint’s parents’ basement, where the big evil was. The big evil was pretty Jabba the Hut like, just an enormous fats rolling around on the carpet. We each had a gun with a bullet made of some sort of spectacular kind of metal that was the only thing the big evil was vulnerable to. Just as we were about to shoot the thing, one of my friends TURNED INTO THE HEADLESS ZOMBIE. Well, now we were fucked. He made us misfire all our guns, and the Jabba the Hut thing laughed, and then started sucking up all the air in the room, getting bigger and bigger. I fished around in my pocket and found I had a pen. “You can’t destroy me with a pen!” Jabba said. “No, but it’ll fucking hurt!” I said, and stabbed him good. While Jabba called the waaaaahmbulance, I managed to run away. I heard my friends being ripped to shreds, screaming, “Get away! Get away! Don’t come back!”
As I ran, I realized the headless zombie was following me. The streets were deserted, but I would have to find some help. Somehow, just finding somebody to see the headless zombie would be enough to make it go away.
Standard monster movie dream here. Then it took a weird psychological turn.
I saw a group of joggers off in the distance. At the very tail end was Mr. Flint’s father. “Wayne!” I yelled. “Wayne, help me!” He looked very concerned and came jogging over. Oh thank god, I thought. He’s going to solve everything because that’s what Wayne does. I began to explain to him about the monster in his basement, how it was sucking all the air out of the room, how it was killing everybody I loved, how it was sending evil creatures to bring me back when everybody I knew was telling me I had to get away and save myself. Suddenly, Wayne’s face changed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “You’re crazy. You’re wrong. None of this is happening.”
“But it’s evil and it’s going to destroy everything!”
“Go back to the basement.”
“I’m not listening to this.”
My father (not my real father or representative of my real father, just a dream father) came up at that moment. “What’s going on here?”
“I don’t know,” Wayne said.
“But I told you, the monster and the basement and the headless zombie–”
“You need to calm down.” Turns to my dream father. “You need to take her away.”
“But I can’t go away because the monster will still be there and killing everything–”
“I have to go.”
I couldn’t leave my friends to die at the hands of the fats monster, so I sadly trudged back to the house. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw Wayne standing there, funny enough, with some much younger woman, not Gwen, Mr. Flint’s mother. “First he leaves Gwen for some stupid make-up queen,” I thought, “now he lets the monster in his basement destroy the world.”
I can understand that my feelings for Gwen and Wayne are different. Wayne was always the one who said, “We’re just glad she married him before she found out what he was really like! Ha ha!” He was also the one who kept funneling Mr. Flint money, who hid from the family the fact that he’d had a drug addiction when his sons were young and that he’d also been divorced once (as if that was as bad as the drug addiction). And he was the one who, according to both sons, nearly got into fistfights with them as teenagers, defused only by Gwen physically standing between them, which Mr. Flint assured me was totally normal but still gave me that icky feeling. And, too, once I became conscious of what was happening in my marriage, I became conscious of the way Wayne belittled Gwen and her family, the way she always looked to him to speak first, and was shut down when she didn’t. The way when she was upset she wanted to talk to us about her feelings, and when he was upset he made a bullet-point list of concepts and terminology we needed to discuss, and told her now now crying wouldn’t help anything. And the way she said she had always wanted to put Mr. Flint on meds and keep him in therapy, but was told there was nothing wrong with him at all. I remember the first time she told me that, she stared off into space for a long time, looking for small and sad.
Maybe I’m angriest at Wayne because if he wasn’t there, leading the family code of silence, maybe one of them would speak to me instead of pretending there was something wrong with the woman who didn’t want to be married to the creature in their basement. But then, I realize, what I need is not for them to speak to me. What I need is to speak to them, to say, “fuck yourself and fuck your family and fuck your cabinet full of china and fuck your gourmet meals and fuck your drug addiction doesn’t exist oh look at this Thai Christmas tree ornament aren’t we fucking special because we use creme fraiche and not whipped cream.”
Not that I need to actually say this to them. I don’t want to speak to them. I do, but I want to punch them in the face first. But I need to realize, I’m not feeling a lot of complicated emotions about their absence in my life. The absence that’s eating me is the absence of anger, that for years they watched this monster eat me, and all they could do was tell me I needed to try harder to make him work, try harder to make him happy, try harder to make him pass his classes, try harder to get him to stop drinking.
I’m running out of steam here. I’m just full of wanting to punch people in the face.