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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.

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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: , ,

Don’t be a “nice guy”

September 4, 2010 1 comment

When I went to college, for the first time, I actually had friends. In fact, for my last two years, I had one group of friends who were the first, and frankly only group of people where I’ve ever really felt like I fit in. Of course I still had my awkward moments – but they accepted me. I can’t say how much that meant to me. I’d never had that before, and I’ve never really had it since.

And then, a new girl joined the group. And I thought that I’d fallen for her. This began something that I’m now terribly ashamed of. But I think it’s worth talking about.

See, I was a “nice guy”. And I did all of the “nice guy” things. And let me tell you – “nice guys” are not nice guys. Knowing what I know about what was going through my head, and what I said about it at the time, I now look at people who claim to be “nice guys” but who can’t get dates, and I despise them. Because I know what’s going through their heads. I’ve been there. I thought those things, and I said those things, and Ibelieved those things. But the problem is, what you think, what you say, and what you believe don’t matter if they don’t match what you do.

I became absolutely obsessed with her. I was convinced that we were meant for each other. I did all sorts of crazy stuff for her. Multiple all-nighters helping her finish her assignments – even though I’d never done an all-nighter for myself. Buying her things she needed, driving her ridiculous places, just because I wanted to do things for her. Cooking meals for her. Writing really bad poetry. And so on.

We were absolutely inseperable. Except that she refused to date me. And I was so upset. Damn it, I was doing all of this stuff for her! I was spending money I didn’t have to do things for her! I was letting my own schoolwork slide to help her!

So I got angry, and we had a huge fight, and she didn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore. But I couldn’t accept that. I kept trying to see her, sending her letters, calling her, talking to her friends, etc.

Here’s the problem with all of that. I wasn’t doing things for her because I really cared about her and wanted to help her. I was doing things for her because deep down, my view of her was as a thing that I was buying with my efforts, not as a person who I was helping. I didn’t know what was going on in her head, and I didn’t really care. I believed that I cared. But… belief isn’t reality. I didn’t really care. I was upset because I thought that she owed me something. She was like a candy machine: I’d put in my money, and now, damn it, I wanted my candy bar. I didn’t think of it that way, of course. In my mind, I was a nice guy who was crazy about her, and who’d done so much for her, and it just wasn’t fair that she was interested in other guys, but not in me.

That’s the truth behind the facade of the “nice guy”. A “nice guy” is a man who believes that deserves something from women, regardless of what they think or feel. Women owe him because he’s been so nice to them.

So she cut me off. Completely. And I was almost hysterical for a while. How could she do that? To me, who’d done so much for her?

Some mutual friends sat me down and gave me a good talking to. I was being crazy, I was practically stalking her, I needed to pull back, get my shit together, and move on with my life. This talk accomplished absolutely nothing at the time, except that it planted a seed in the back of my mind.

The school year ended, I graduated, and left for grad school. A year passed, and I gradually gave up on getting her to talk to me again. The next year, my next door neighbor in my grad-school apartment was dating a guy that I got to be friends with. He was a really nice guy. But I couldn’t quite figure out his relationship with my neighbor. They were together a lot, but… he’d say things about her when she wasn’t around that just didn’t make sense. I mean, I’m this pathetically shy guy who barely talks to anyone… but I knew things about his girlfriend that he didn’t! He didn’t know much of anything about her! How could that make any sense?

She eventually dumped him, and he did start stalking her. And the things he was saying as he was stalking her? They were exactly the same things that I’d said a year or two earlier. (Except, thank goodness, I’d never reached quite his level of insanity.)

Seeing that, frankly, scared the crap out of me. And the seed that had been planted by my old friends started to sprout. I realized how awful I’d been. I realized how much I’d objectified her. I realized how much I’d tormented her.

I wanted to apologize. But how could I? She’d made it absolutely clear that she never wanted to hear from me again. And if I forced a contact – by whatever means – I’d be doing to her exactly what I was trying to apologize for doing. So I made a decision to respect her choice, and I didn’t get back in touch.

Another year later, she died, of aplastic anemia.

She’d been sick when I knew her. I knew she had anemia, but I didn’t know what kind, or how bad it was. She’d never volunteered it, and I’d never asked. Our mutual friends got in touch with me to ask if I wanted to go to her funeral. And they’d all known what she had. Even back when I was following her around, they’d known, and they’d assumed that I’d known. But I’d never actually listened to her enough to actually understand what was wrong, or how serious it was.

That’s how badly I’d treated her. She was deathly sick. She didn’t know if she’d live to finish college. And I didn’t know! I’d believed that I was head-over-heels in love with her, and I’d never actually paid enough attention to her to realize just how scared she was. And now that I knew that, so many things about the way she acted, the way she carried herself, the way she talked – they all started to make sense. And so it really hit me what I’d done. How I’d turned her into nothing more than an object, instead of a person.

For a long time, I argued that she’d used me. And when we first fought, she’d admitted that she’d used me. I held that memory like a shield up until she’d died: whatever I’d done wrong, she’d used me. She’d admitted it. She owed me!

But what I came to realize was that in a situation like that, someone can’t use you without your permission. She wasn’t asking for things; I was volunteering them. She accepted, knowing at least partially what it was costing me. In that sense, she used me. But I did volunteer for it. I made the offer, claiming that it was being made out of nothing but affection and friendship, when in reality, I was doing it with the expectation of getting paid back. Yeah, she used me… but I was trying to get her to use me, so that she’d owe me something in return.

I didn’t go to the funeral. I really wanted to. But… she’d made it absolutely clear when she was alive that she never wanted to see or hear from me, ever again. Going to her funeral, being there with her mourners – it would have been a violation of her wishes. It would have been a purely selfish gesture – going to the funeral to say goodbye, in a way that she wouldn’t have tolerated when she was alive.

So what brought this whole thing on?

The other day, I was google-chatting with one of my online friends. She mentioned that an old ex of hers, one who’d followed her around moping obsessively for years, had just tried to get back in touch with her. I had two reactions: I got really angry, and I got really depressed. Angry, because I know what’s behind that kind of behavior, and it really upset me. Here’s someone who’s kind enough to actually be friends with a monster like me, and look what’s happening to her! Look what’s being done by someone just like I used to be. And depressed because… my friend is being hurt, and it’s being done by someone who’s just like I used to be. I know how acting like that can hurt the target of your “affections”. I know, because I’ve done it. I’ve seen the pain in can inflict on its target; i’m responsible for doing that to someone.

I didn’t mean to. But that’s no excuse.

So… any “nice guys” out there who see this? If you’re obsessing over a woman, you need to take a look deep inside yourself, and think about the target of your obsession. How well do you really know her? Are you really, truly doing things because you care about her, or are you doing them because you want something in return? If your really care about someone, and they don’t want to see you anymore – if you really care, you should care enough to respect their wishes. Grow the fuck up, and don’t be an asshole like me.

Self-Narratives

For a long time, I completely denied the reality of my problem. I insisted that I was just shy. Nothing wrong with me, nothing! I really convinced myself of that.

Now, after finally admitting that I’ve got this problem, and that it’s something real, when I look back at some things from my past, I realize that many of the stories I told myself, the things that I believed about myself, are completely wrong.

I believed that my whole social anxiety thing was better when I was in college. It really wasn’t. But I made excuses for some of the things that it caused. What’s strange about that is that the excuses are a whole lot worse than the reality.

When I first started college, I was an engineering major. I flunked out.

The story that I’ve believed for so many years is that the reason I flunked out was because I don’t think like an engineer.

But… looking back honestly? That’s not why I flunked out. It was a contributing factor… but the real cause? I skipped labs – because I was afraid of being in the lab with a bunch of strangers. I didn’t go to professors office hours – because I was afraid of interacting with the professors. I skipped the small-group recitations in the large-section classes, because in those sessions, I would have had to interact with my classmates.

Even in my non-major classes, I was getting terrible grades. Why did I nearly flunk a course in Arthurian Romance, when I’d already read every text we looked at in class? Because at my undergrad school, I had to take a bus from to get from my previous class to the lecture hall where that class was. And that bus frequently wasn’t fast enough to get me there on time – I’d be five minutes late to class. The professor was used to that, and generally didn’t even start on time, because so many people were straggling in. (It was the last normal class session of the day, so it was easy for him to just finish a few minutes late.) But… if I showed up five minutes late, I’d be the focus of attention from the other students when I walked in. So I just wouldn’t. If I couldn’t make it on time, I’d skip it. I ended up skipping two thirds of the lectures.

But I completely ignored that, and blamed my failure on my not being smart enough, not being good enough, not having what it took to be an engineer.

Part of that was the culture of the school. When I did flunk out, I was called into a meeting with the head-freshman dean of the engineering school, who literally gave me a lecture about how I was a failure who wasn’t good enough. He said engineers are special, they’re an elite group of really smart, really talented people – and I just wasn’t good enough to be one of them. No shame in that, you’re just not good enough.

Lovely guy, him.

But I thought he was an idiot even before that lecture. So I really can’t blame anything about what I believe on that. He certainly wasn’t a big influence on me or my beliefs. I believed it because it gave me cover for what I really didn’t want to admit.

Which is that, when it came to interacting with other people, I’m broken.

Back then, I was still someone who believed that people with psychological or psychiatric problems were weak. And I’d rather be a moron than admit to myself that I have that kind of weakness.

Looking back at it now, it seems so stupid. But that’s what I thought then, and that laid a crazy foundation for a lot of what I built into my image of myself.