Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Common Sense (Part 2 of ?)*

*Note/disclaimer: I may refer to people who have been abused, who suffer from eating disorders, and other related issues/circumstances in the third person throughout these posts, but that's mainly a device. I'm mostly talking about myself, other people I know, and the results of research I've done in the furtherance of my own understanding of what the hell is wrong with me. I am by no means attempting to make blanket statements that apply to all (or even a majority) of people who are or have been in any situation I have been. Also, sexist though it may be, I'll be using "she", "her", "the girl(s)" and other feminine pronouns/references for my writing, though anyone with any sort of understanding of EDs and abuse knows that males are also victims and sufferers. I'm simplifying things for my writing, that's all.

*** Warning – potential trigger(s) for abuse survivors and/or ED sufferers ***

As I said before, one ideas I've learned of that really resonates with me is that for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, emotional development stops at the age the abuse begins. Being molested as a child changes the way a person views and reacts to life, the world, and other people in ways that are hard to explain, and probably harder for others to grasp. So I'm going to try to break it down a little.

First, the act/trauma itself has a huge impact on world view. The only "real world" example I can think of for non-survivors that might approximate the emotional devastation would be terrorist attacks. I know it's pathetically melodramatic, but if I could think of a better example, I'd go with it in a flash. I feel like the biggest asshole using this one, but these things are so hard to convey. Here's what I mean, though: something drastic, and horrifying comes without warning and causes you intense emotional pain (and for many children, physical pain, but I can't speak to that). Suddenly, the world you knew is gone. Gone. There are no safe places. People can't be trusted. You don't know how to understand, let alone *deal with* the terror and hurt you're suddenly left with.

Continuing with my terrible analogy, go one step further: imagine that one of the terrorists was someone you knew and trusted. That your family and friends knew and trusted. Maybe an actual family member or friend. Seriously, try to imagine this. Someone close to you, a terrorist. Keep in mind, you're considering these things as an adult. Remember all the fuss about how to talk to kids about these things? Can you actually conceptualize yourself dealing with them as the child you once were? Alone? Unable to talk about them, either because you're traumatized, or you were told not to, or both?

Ok – no more hypotheticals. Here's my experience. The fear and betrayal and hurt make you withdraw from people physically and emotionally. Although I don't remember my abuse, I do remember pulling away from others over that period of time. I remember wandering around on the playground by myself, not wanting to play or interact at all with the other kids. I remember one day I was so lost in my own head and detached from my environment during recess that I didn't notice when the teachers came out and got all the kids to go back in. I have no idea how long I was out there by myself – I just recall suddenly looking up and noticing that there was no one else outside, and running inside to rejoin my class. While most kids want a fun, noisy party with lots of presents and al their classmates there, I remember wanting only 2 or 3 particular girls at mine, but inviting everyone because that's what was "expected" of me.

Having been so misled by the person who did such a terrible thing makes you question your judgment about everything. Especially when – as with much molestation – the abuser is a family member or acquaintance (as in my case). If I was so wrong about that person, how could any of my judgements about others be correct? Who else do I trust who might secretly want to hurt me? I don't know if the withdrawal came as a result of the hurt and shock, or of this betrayal and fear, or both. But when you're a little kid and the world is suddenly full of people who might do bad things to you, what can you do besides pull away and try to avoid more hurt? If these things haven't been discussed with you (they weren't with me – public discussion of molestation came after I had experienced it, and I think my parents just thought it wouldn't/couldn't happen) it's not like you know you're supposed to tell someone. And who can you trust to tell? No one is safe anymore.

It's this withdrawal and paranoia, I think, that lead to the failure to develop social skills. Things like listening, reading facial expressions, and communicating openly and honestly – how can a child in the state of mind I tried to depict above even start to learn these things? I'm not listening to you – you might be lying to me. How should I know? Your facial expression could be a mask, hiding something terrible. It happened before. And since I can't interpret any of the usual social cues, how on earth am I supposed to learn to properly use them with other people? This lack of social skills, combined with the suspicion and fear, leads one to become defensive, confrontational, and hard to read. You don't trust others, and your closed-off presentation makes others distrust you, which strengthens your feelings that they shouldn't be trusted. It's a vicious cycle.

I know from my own experience that I often have no idea how the expressions on my face appear to other people. I used to get accused of giving people death-glares ALL the time, and I had no idea what my face was doing. The same goes with tone of voice – that harsh/bitter/angry tone I might take doesn't sound that way in my own head; it's part of my defense mechanism, and I only know it's there through feedback from other people. Chris and I used to get in HUGE fights, and in the end it would turn out that what had set them off was that I had said something to him in a way that was very abrasive and almost mean. I didn't hear it. We finally developed a system where if I say something with that tone, he asks me to check my tone of voice. That has helped us in TONS of conflicts.

I can't recall a time when I ever wanted to be "popular" or have lots of friends. Honestly, I'm happy with one or two, and these social issues are why. It is so emotionally and physically draining to try to interact with people from a place of having no tools to do so. The closest thing that might approximate it would be trying to drive without my glasses. All kinds of important data coming in fast, but fuzzy. And terrifying, because misreading something could have horrible consequences.

I know I come across as antisocial and unfriendly to a lot of people in "real life". Apparently, the last time I went to Atlanta no one (including Chris, but probably with the exception of my sister) thought I had a good time. I had a freaking blast! But I guess it wasn't apparent. I can (and do) sit quietly in groups of people, not talking and just listening and taking things in. And I'm happy in that situation. The best thing about groups of people (especially when they don't know me very well, so I don't really *have* to talk) is that the pressure is off me to interact. But then I guess I look like the miserable bitch who isn't having fun, and making everyone else uncomfortable. So how do I change that without overloading and stressing myself out and then actually becoming the miserable chick everyone already thought I was?

Any of you who has been to a Sniffa I attended may have noticed that at pretty much every stop we made, I had to go find somewhere quiet to sit by myself for a little (or long) while. Not because I didn't like the people or wasn't having a great time (because I love the people, and live for Sniffas!), but because all that input is just plain overwhelming. And it's harder there, because there are so many people there who I genuinely like and care about, and I want to spend time with each of them, and I just start feeling stretched way too thin.

All these things I just talked about are the main reason that I love communicating with people online. Although "tone" doesn't interpret well in cyberspace, that's not a problem for me because tone and expression are extremely difficult for me to read "in real life" anyway. I learned in school to only take meaning from the actual *words* in something written. I might be inclined to interpret a certain tone from something someone writes, but unless the words themselves are there, I know not to assume. So many conflicts online and in emails are due to people inferring meanings that really weren't there. For me, it's so much easier to deal with the written word because I can check and double-check to be sure that my intended meaning is what my words are expressing. I don't have to worry that I might use the wrong tone of voice, or unintentionally display the wrong facial expression, and screw up the dialogue. There's far less input, and most of it is the kind I know how to handle.

I have to say that not working has been a major blessing for me in all these regards. I told Chris the other day that I found the cure for depression/anxiety/insomnia: screw what society dictates – only leave the house when you feel like it, and sleep when you're tired! It works! I'm only sort-of kidding here. I know how incredibly lucky I am to be able to set my hours and stay in as much as I need and want. And although I don't take it for granted, I won't apologize for it either. I'm the happiest and most me I've ever been, and I wouldn't trade it for all the money in the world!


cjblue said...

Wow, T. Much to think about here, and as a mother of two young girls my mind automatically goes to them, time and again. I thank you though, for giving us a more in-depth idea of some of the clues that might present themselves if such a situation arises.

I think the terrorist analogy is a good one, because I remember feeling my entire world was shaken around the time of the attacks on the WTC.

Most interesting to me though, is that although we've only met a couple of times, I've always found you to be cheerful, interactive, pleasant and with the appearance of being comfortable in the Sniffa environment - one which could potentially be very difficult, I'd think - I certainly have difficulties in large crowds. I've never noticed you disappearing, scowling or saying anything in an unpleasant way. But I'm not married to you. I guess I just want you to know that, at least in the situations where I've had the pleasure of hanging out with you, you don't come off that way at all.

Anyway, you are loved. I really admire your bravery in putting this all out here for our benefit. Because I do think we're all benefiting from your story and experiences. ♥

Kyahgirl said...

I'm glad I stopped by today.
First, I want to reiterate what our cjblue just said. When I met you at the sniffa you came across to me as quiet, sweet and easy going.
I too get easily overwhelmed by too many people, too much noise, too many conversations so completely relate to the need to take a time out. When I was at the NARS makeover counter in Barney's and you were sitting behind me it felt really companionable and peaceful there. That's why I went out of the perfume area in the first place actually, was to get away for a few minutes.

When Robin and I were making our plans to share a hotel room, I warned her up front that I might need to withdraw periodically if there were lots of people around. I'm the youngest of 8 kids and this behaviour is something that my family has only come to understand recently. I really can't cope with all the noise and confusion. Families are the worst too because they are naturally so rude to each other. Its nothing for 4 of them to interuppt each other trying to talk to me or shouting over each other :-)

I can also really relate to your comments about being online. I love it because it gives me the chance to be very social but at my own pace.

love you honey,
thanks for sharing.

risa said...

*big hugs*

i won't say more than that, but know i empathize.

Trina said...

Ruthie, Laura, and Risa, thank you SO much for your comments. Sorry I'm so late responding, but they really mean a lot to me.