Resuming, and why I’ve been so quiet

I’m back!

I stopped writing this blog about six months ago. The reason why is, unfortunately, something all too common. My boss found out that I was getting treated for social anxiety – and he decided that that was sufficient evidence to conclude that I was a crazy, untrustworthy person, and that everything I did must, inevitably, be inexcusably wrong.

For me, this kind of thing is horribly frustrating. But I’m lucky. For a lot of other people, this would be tragic. I don’t need this job. Up until this shit started, I really liked it – but I don’t need it. I’ve got other options: I can (and in fact, I did) leave it, and find something else. I didn’t want to do that, but the fact is, we’re not going to starve.

What I learned from this, among other things, is that the stigma of mental illness remains incredibly strong. Even as someone who’s written about it, and dealt with its repercussions before, it still manages to surprise me. As a person with this illness, once people like my ex-manager find out, my skills, my knowledge, my history, and my experience no longer matter. The illness outweighs everything everything else.

One brief mention of it, in the context of scheduling, and my career at the company was over.

The whole thing was, at times, downright comic. My manager believes that mental illness means that I can’t be trusted, that I’m irrational, and that I’m incapable of intellectual reasoning. Essentially, because I have this illness, I’m an idiot, and I can’t possibly do anything right. And proving otherwise was impossible.

A typical example of my work-life once this came out: a few months back, I’d finished one part of our system, and was ready to move on to the next. My manager, coworkers, and I discussed possible strategies for that next step, and concluded that there were two possible approaches: A and B. I spent a day analyzing things, and concluded that A was the better approach. So I went and built A.

When it was done, my boss threw a fit. A was ridiculous! How could I possibly think that A was the right approach? How could someone as senior as me possibly be so ridiculously ignorant?

So I went back to the drawing board, and did B. Finished it, and you can probably guess what’s coming: B is ridiculous! Inexcusable! No competent engineer would ever dream that B is the right way of doing it! Any idiot could see that A was the right approach.

I pointed out: I’d already done A, and been berated for it, and instructed in very clear terms to do B.

His response was, basically, “I never said that, and I never told you to do that.” But I had it in email – he’d specifically sent me an email berating me after doing it in person. So I said: “Look, I’ve got this email where you specifically say A is wrong, and I should go do B”.

His response? “In addition to being incompetent, you’re insubordinate, and if you don’t straighten up, you’re going to get fired”.

In other words: you’re just a crazy freak, so don’t you dare question anything I say.

Things continued in this vein for months. No matter what I do, it’s wrong. Even if I do exactly what I’m instructed to do, it will be wrong. After months of this, it’s completely obvious that there’s absolutely no chance of succeeding here. No matter what I do, I will lose.

So I quit. And that means that I no longer need to worry about what would happen if he were to discover the stuff I write here.

Forgiveness? Never!

Someone sent me a link to this. Apparently the author of that piece actually died last weekend. It’s very sad: he’s the kind of person who the world needs more of. Someone honest, someone who’s not afraid to take responsibility for his own errors, someone who’s not afraid to speak up, even when what he has to say isn’t going to be well received by mane people. I would have liked to have the opportunity to talk to him – it sounds like we had a lot in common.

He said a lot of things that I’ve tried to express, and failed. It’s so hard to try to explain just what it’s like to still be upset about what people did to you twenty or thirty years ago. And yet, it still has an effect; it still hurts; it still influences you.

One of the places where I disagree strongly with him is the issue of forgiveness. When I talk about the fact that I’m still angry over the abusethat I went through, that I’m still angry at the people who did it, and the people who allowed it, I get lectures about forgiveness: They’re not the samepeople they were back them! Can’t you get over it, and give them a chance? Why hold that anger? It’s bad for you, you need to forgive. blah, blah, blah.

Here’s the thing: the people that abused me? They’re not sorry that they did it it. They never apologized. They never expressed the least bit of remorse or regret. On the rare occasions that I’ve bumped into one of them – either online, or when I’m in back in my old home-town visiting my parents – they remember it as good old fun times: “Hey, dude, remember that time I slammed you against the flagpole? Wasn’t that fun? Man, the look on your face while you rolled on the ground and cried, the way you couldn’t open your right eye the rest of the day because it was so swollen! It was great!”

They don’t deserve to be forgiven. And forgiving them would be a betrayal of myself. These were people who harmed me, profoundly, for their own pleasure. To forgive them without any remorse or regret on their part would be a way of saying that what they did was OK with me. That while I was upset at the time, it doesn’t matter anymore. But it does matter. It matters a lot. It may have been a long time ago… but the fact remains that I can’t have a friend say “Hey, dude, long time no see” without reacting with absolute terror. I’m still a freak who reacts instinctively tonormal, everyday, friendly gestures with fear and anger – because of the abuse that was inflicted on me.

How can I forgive that?

Worse, how can I forgive the people who enabled it? As angry as I am at the people who abused me, like the author of the thing I linked to up above, I’m more angry at the adults.

I was abused at school. It almost entirely a school thing; encounters off the school grounds happened once in a while, but they were extremely rare – I was smart enough to avoid anyplace that my tormentors frequented when we weren’t at school.

And the thing about this stuff going on at school was that it could only happen with the tacit OK of the adults at the school. A kid can’t be beaten upat school every day without teachers, principals, and counselors knowing about it. It’s their job, their responsibility to make the school a safe place where children can learn. They didn’t do their job. It’s not that they couldn’t have stopped stuff like that from happening.

Kids aren’t stupid. In many ways, kids are perfect examples of abstract economics. There’s a certain amount of benefit (pleasure) to be had from certain activities; and those activities have some cost. If the cost of the activity is less than the benefit, then the activity will continue; if thecost exceeds the benefit, then they’ll stop.

How do you stop bullying? You attach a significant cost to it. It’s that simple. If the cost exceeds the benefit, then it stops.

In my school, there was no cost. The principal of the school was a former nun, who believed that children needed to work out their problems on their own, and so she refused to get involved. Whatever happened between children on school grounds, well, it happened. That’s just the way children are.

The flagpole incident mentioned above, that’s real. Both the original event, and the encounter several years later. I did, literally, have my face slammed into a flagpole. I did have an eye swollen closed. And guess what happened to the guy who did it? Not a god-damned bloody thing. Absolutely nothing.

That’s inexcusable, unforgivable. It’s a betrayal of her responsibility, of her obligations to the students under her care, of her obligations as a human being. That principal? There is no power on earth or in heaven that can ever make me forgive her. I hope that there’s a hell, and that she’s rotting in it.

With the recent attention that’s being paid to bullying, I’ve seen a lot of people coming forward against “bullying the bullies”. Their argument is, roughly, that when you punish a bully, you’re doing the same thing to themthat they do to their victims. You’re a person in a position of power relative to them. You’re bigger and stronger, and when you punish the bully, you’re using the fact that you’re bigger and stronger to hurt them.

Fuck that. If punishing a bully for abusing other children is bullying? Fine, bully the bullies! The only way to stop children from abusing other children is to make it clear to them that there is a cost. That the cost outweighs whatever pleasure they get from committing the abuse. And that they will need to pay that cost each and every time they attack or abuse another child, without exception. Do that? Bullying ends. Don’t do that? It will continue.

In my case, the bullying stopped during my senior year in high school. Why? Two things happened. First of all, I grew over ten inches between the beginning of junior and senior years in high school. So I got a lot bigger. And second, I discovered that a knapsack containing a physics book, a chemistry book, and a calculus book made a great weapon: it really hurt to get hit by it, and it required virtually no skill on my part to use it. As soon as abusing me had a cost – that the abuser could take 10 pounds of textbooks in the face for doing it, it stopped.

Curing versus Healing

October 11, 2010 1 comment

Sorry for the lack of posting lately. Writing this stuff is really hard, so I don’t write it unless I really have something to say.

My therapy progresses. And I’ve learned some things, which are simultaneously informative, helpful, and very painful. I have to say that I am not enjoying this process, not at all.

I’ve realized, as I get further into this, is just what success means when you’re fighting social anxiety. Success isn’t a cure. There is no cure – it’s not an illness like an infection, where you take some medicine and it goes away. At least in my case, it’s more like an injury. You can help it heal, make it less crippling, but the damage will never completely go away. Iwent through years of abuse, and that left scars. Those scars are a part of me that I can’t get rid of. I can learn to change the role that those scars play in my life, to reduce their impact on my day-to-day interactions with other people, but I can’t eliminate that impact.

In one sense, realizing that is a good thing. Part of what had me feeling so hopeless for a while was the fact that I thought that what I needed to do was erase those scars – and I didn’t believe that I couldpossibly do that. So understanding that I’m not really trying to do that? It makes it much easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

But in another sense, it’s awful. It makes me so angry, so angry that I don’t really know how to put it into words… These bastards who abused me, who tortured me for their own pleasure – I will never be completely free of them. The things they did to me will always be an unescapable part of my life.

Another recent development in my therapy is flashbacks. Or, I guess, to be precise, awareness of flashbacks.

I mentioned a couple of posts back that my daughter just started middle school. My wife and I went to the back-to-school night at her school to meet her teachers. While we were in the math classroom, something happened which literally put me, in my own head, back in my seventh grade math classroom.

I’m not going to go into details, because I don’t want to say anything that could give away who I am. But someone, meaning well, did something that reminded me of what people used to do to let me know that I was going to be beaten up after class. And.. well, it’s a very hard thing to describe. I wasn’t hallucinating – it’s not like I didn’t know where I was. But simultaneously, like it was superimposed in my imagination over the real classroom that I was seeing, I could see, perfectly clearly, that seventh grade classroom, and the people in it, and the people who’d abused me.

It was a horrible, terrifying moment.

Talking to my doctor about that, and then thinking about it afterwards – I’ve realized that there is a strong element of flashback to a lot of my anxiety. It’s not at a conscious level, and it’s nowhere nearly as vivid as that night at my daughter’s school. But it’s there.

For example, I was at work, sitting in a lounge in my office, and a former coworker who I was friends with walked by, and said “Hey! Haven’t seen you in a while!” My immediate reaction was terror. Why? In my head… back in school, every time anyone said those words, “haven’t seen you in a while”, it was immediately followed by getting hit, or tripped, or banged into a wall. Again, I haven’t consciously thought about that in many years, but that’s been behind my reactions all along.

It scares me. It really does. That all of these things are still inside my head, still affecting me in such a direct way. Things that I really honestly believed I hadn’t remembered, things that I desperately tried to forget – they’re all there, they’re not forgotten, and they’re still affecting me.

Which, I guess, brings this post full circle. I’m never going to escape from the influence of these things. There is no cure. But, hopefully, I can heal, at least a little bit. My hope is that by understanding these influences, by understanding where my fear comes from, I can learn to at least reduce their ability to continue to warp my life. That, if I can’t be cured, I can at least recover some of who I could have been.

Intervention

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

One of my children just recently started middle school. That’s the same age where my troubles really started, so I was already somewhat on edge watching what would happen.

What watching it brought back frankly surprised me.

Deep down, I’ve always believed that my real problems stem from the things that happened to me in school. And I also believe that there was no reason for any of it to happen. That if someone, anyone in a position of responsibility had bothered to do anything, if anyone had cared the slightest bit, that all of the torture I endured could have been stopped before it ever really started.

And watching my kid, that appears to be true.

The first week of school, one nasty kid started abusing mine. We contacted a guidance counselor at school. His reaction was to immediately say “That kind of behavior not tolerated at our school”, and to start taking action in multiple ways. The offending kid was disciplined; a group of children including (but not limited to) the kids who were passive participants were contacted gently and spoken to; my kid was brought in to talk to the counselor, who’s working with her on how to respond when someone acts like that.

The school’s new principal also gave a short introductory talk at the back-to-school night where we went to meet the teachers. In it, he said something like “As I see it, my job is to ensure that this school is a place where you children can come to learn. That means that when they come here, it’s my job to ensure that they’re safe – both from threats that come from outside the school and threats that come from inside the school.”

It impressive just how little effort it takes. This kind of trouble needs to be taken seriously – but if you really are serious about it, if you actually care, it doesn’t take much effort.

Watching this makes me really, really angry. Not that my kid is getting taken good care of. But because it proves that I was right all along. That if someone had cared, if someone had been willing to spend just a little bit of time doing their job, that I could have been spared so much pain, so many years of disfunction.

Why couldn’t any of the schools that I went to have thought about something like that? Why didn’t anyone ever stand up and say “We can’t let children in our school be beaten and abused”? Why didn’t anyone in authority ever both to try to protect me?

Here it is, 25 years after I graduated from high school – and I still have flashbacks of what was done to me. And it all could have been stopped right where it started, if only anyone had cared. But no one did. And the only one who was actually hurt by their lack of concern was me.

Categories: Retrospective Tags: , ,

Bravery

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Before I started getting treatment, I talked to some on-line friends about what I should do.

I’ve suffered from social anxiety for a really long time. It’s something around thirty years that I’ve been dealing with it. Even if you distinguish between my experiences as a kid, and my trouble as an adult, it’s been twenty years since I graduated from college, and this anxiety trouble has plagued me in every job, every interaction in those years.

Once I finally decided to try to get treatment, people keep telling me about how brave I am to admit that I have this problem, and to do something about it.

I hate that.

The main reason I hate that probably isn’t what you’d expect. Like a lot of people with emotional troubles, I don’t take compliments very well. I’ve got a very negative self-image, and it’s very hard for me to reconcile nice things that people say about me with what I believe about myself. My gut reaction to most compliments is to believe that the complimenter is either deluded or lying.

But that’s not why I dislike it when people say that I’m brave to get treatment.

I’m not brave, I’m desperate. That might not seem like a big difference, but it really is. If people had told me that I need to be brave in order to get treatment, I never would have been able to do it. As it was, I was barely able to call the doctor to make an appointment the first time. The only way that I managed to do it was literally to program the doctors number into my phone through my Gmail contacts, so that I didn’t actually have to dial it! I just had to press one button.

Facing up to doing something about a problem like this, about something that has been a dominant factor in my life for so long – it’s hard. It’s painful. And it’s frightening. It’s really, really scary.

I don’t feel brave. I feel scared, and sad, and frustrated. I feel like a coward who’s been hiding from the world for most of my life. It doesn’t matter whether or not that’s true. What matters is that that’s what I feel, and that those feelings are what I needed to fight through in order to try to get help.

When you say that someone who does manage to ask for help is brave, I can’t help but think that you’re making it more scary. When you tell me that I’m brave, I think that you’re telling other people who see/hear the conversation, who have the same problem, but who haven’t yet taken the step of getting treatment that if they want to get help, that they are going to need to be brave in order to do it. And that’s just raising the barrier, making it harder for them to take the first step.  At least for me, there’s a huge element of self-loathing to my social anxiety. I don’t have a good opinion of myself. When I think about a positive attribute like bravery, I just can’t make myself believe that I’ve got anything like that. It’s part of the problem that I need help with.

It doesn’t take bravery to get help. It takes need. If you need the help, you can find a way to work around your fear, and get it. It doesn’t take bravery.

Like I said, I had trouble calling the doctor to schedule an appointment. I literally couldn’t dial the number. I couldn’t get through it. I couldn’t push the correct 10 digits on my cellphone. So I took the email where my internist sent me  the name and number of the therapist, and cut-and-pasted them into a contact in gmail. Then I synced the contacts with my phone. And then the number was there – and all I needed to do was tap the doctors name in my contact list, and the phone dialed.

Even so – the first time I got the doctors answering machine, and managed to leave a message without including my phone number.  It wasn’t consciously deliberate, but I think that sub-consciously, that I didn’t want to leave my number, because that made it inevitable that she’d call me back. I had to call again the next day to actually leave a message with my number.

That’s not the behavior of a brave person. That’s the behavior of someone who’s desperate for some help. You don’t need to be brave to get help – you just need to understand that you need the help.  Adding bravery into the equation, making that into something necessary to be able to get help, it just makes it that much harder – because it makes you need to not just overcome your fear, but it also takes the self-loathing, and props it up as yet another barrier to be overcome.

What it feels like

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Two posts in one day, amazing.

I was just sitting and musing on this stuff, when I realized that there’s a great way of describing just how I feel.

For me, anxiety is focused on initiating contact. Once I’m talking to someone, I’m mostly OK. If you ask me a question, I can respond without any problem. And once you’ve started talking to me, you probably wouldn’t notice that my behavior is at all unusual. But initiating contact is what kills me.

So… to get a sense of what it feels like…  you’re watching a horror movie. And the hero,  for some incredibly stupid reason, decides  that instead of doing something smart like calling the polices, he’s going to go, alone and unarmed, into the dark basement where the killer is hiding. And the camera follows him down the stairs, tension building, the music playing a dissonant thrumming chord ever louder, and you know that at any moment, the killer is going to jump out of the shadows with a knife? You know that tense feeling, that horrible, anxious, sensation where all of your muscles are tensing up, because you know what’s coming?

That is exactly the feeling I get when I need to start talking to someone. Except that I don’t have the distance that it’s happening to someone else, someone imaginary on the screen. Even though intellectually, I know that nothing bad is going to happen, that tension, that wiring of the nerves, that anxiety, that certainty that something awful is about to happen, that the idiot needs to get the hell out of there – that’s what I’m feeling.

Categories: Social Anxiety

Working with Social Anxiety

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m going to try to stop being quite so whiny here.

Working through therapy for social anxiety is really difficult. And it seems like it gets worse before it gets better. Part of the therapy is just becoming aware of the fear, and how it affects me in my daily life. The bad side of that is that it forces me to recognize just how much it’s affected pretty much every aspect of my life. There’s virtually nothing that I do, from the time I get up in the morning, until I go to sleep at night that isn’t affected. In fact, even sleep isn’t immune: even in my dreams, the anxiety affects me. I knew that my anxiety had a huge effect on my life – but even I wasn’t really aware of just how huge that effect was. And now, I’m becoming conscious of it – and feelings of anxiety that were bubbling beneath the surface are now getting my attention – and my attention makes me feel them more intensely.

A big part of the reason that I’ve been freaking out so much lately is, as I said, it seems like things get worse before they get better. That’s difficult. But it’s had a serious effect on my work – which just adds an additional stressor.

I’ve always tended to work by myself. In my last job, I ended up gravitating towards projects where I could mostly do things by myself. I always blamed that on the fact that my area of specialization was something that was very highly valued by management, but wasn’t particularly well-respected by my coworkers. That’s true, but I think that I also was finding ways of being even more withdrawn and solitary than can be explained by that.

In my current job, being solitary isn’t an option. It’s just not the way that we do things in my company.

I was the technical lead of my last project, and it crashed and burned. I don’t think that that was my fault: there were problems in the project that pre-dated my involvement, and I don’t think that even if I had the best social skills in the world, that there’s anything I could have done to salvage it. But I think that my lack of social skills did have an effect on the aftermath. I think I wound up catching a lot of the blame, simply because my side of the story never got heard. People didn’t know what I did; they weren’t aware of how hard I worked to try to fix things – because I never talked to anyone except my immediate coworkers.

In the aftermath of that, my manager’s manager basically said that my performance was lousy, and that he couldn’t justify asking any other project to take me on. This was a total shock to me, because up until then, I thought that I had a pretty decent track record. Sure, the last project was a mess: but I’d done some great, important, valuable work on my previous projects! Except that, once again, no one knew that I’d done it. I built a tool that was used by hundreds of other engineers. But the tool had been promoted by my coworker, who’d been mentoring me on the project – and so this manager had assumed that he did it.

So I was very lucky to get the chance to move into my current project, and I came on board under a shadow. And it’s a very tough job. We’ve got a huge and critically important codebase, which we took over from another group. We need to refactor it – to take what is currently one large, highly interconnected system, and split it into two smaller, independent systems with a well-defined interface. And we don’t have time to understand all of the details of how it works! So we need to treat parts of it as black boxes, and do the refactoring around the edges of those boxes. It’s the kind of software development and maintenance task that gets very little attention, no glamour, but which is incredibly important and highly challenging. (And, frankly, it’s actually fun, precisely because it’s so challenging.)

Alas, nothing is ever simple when you’ve got severe anxiety trouble. I tend to spend a lot of time puzzling through things where just asking a coworker for help would be much, much faster. We each know parts of the system pretty well – when I get caught dealing with one of the parts I know less well, what I should do is just talk to the guy in the next desk over. But to do that, I’d have to interrupt him and ask him a question. And for me, that’s terrifying. Even though I know him; even though most days I eat lunch with him; even though we talk comfortably when he initiates a conversation; when I need to ask something, I’m crippled by fear.

And so, I don’t ask. I just take three times as long to do anything as I should.

Frankly, this is the biggest thing that I need to work on. It’s a lot more important than talking to clerks in a store. And it should be easier, because it’s someone I know. But it isn’t, and I think I need to understand why that is.

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