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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.

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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.

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.

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.

Self-Loathing

Deep down, I don’t really believe that I’m ever going to get better.

The hell of it is that I’ve internalized so much of the pain and so much of the blame for the pain, that I blame myself for everything wrong with me. I really genuinely hate the person that I am. Every time something bad happens, it’s like there’s a little voice in my head saying “Ha! You deserved that, you rotten bastard!”

Intellectually, I can say that that’s ridiculous. I can say that I try to be a good person; that I’m loyal and kind to my friends; that I’m smart and successful at work. But that’s all intellectual. On an emotional level, I don’t really believe that.

I think that that’s a big part of my problem. I hate me. I see myself as some sort of monstrous freak. And so I expect everyone else to. I’m terrified of every encounter with people, because I’m scared that they’re going to figure out what I really am.

I know that that’s stupid. But knowing that it’s stupid doesn’t change its reality.

If that’s really what’s going on – if that self-hatred is really the root of the problem – then how can I get better?

And I wonder where it came from. I was abused, terribly, in high school. Beaten, mocked, humiliated, on a daily basis. Every day, year in, year out. Did I learn to accept the mockery and humiliation as truth? I didn’t think so at the time, but now I wonder. That’s how it seems. The things that I blame myself for, the bits of myself that I hate, the things I do, the things I think, the things I see that trigger the worst of that self-hatred – they’re all things that I was tormented about in those terrible times.

How do I go about getting that out of my brain? I wish I knew. I wish I believed that I could.

But I’m a geek. And the way I understand this whole phenomenon is in terms of debugging. We’re trying to debug my mind. But as a geek, I know that some programs are so screwed up that they can’t be debugged. When you’ve got one of those, you either have to live with it and all of its bugs, or you have to throw it away and start from scratch to replace it. I can’t throw away my mind.

Blame, Responsibility, and Guilt

As anyone reading this has doubtlessly figured out by now, guilt is a major issue for me. I’ve got my problems, and it’s bad enough that they hurt me. But they reach out beyond me, and manage to hurt people I care about, too, like my wife and my kids. And I sometimes have a really hard time coping with that. It’s really awful when I see the effects that my screwups have on them. They’re innocent; they had no part in anything that happened to me; they have no reason to be stuck dealing with my trouble. But they do get stuck with it.  It’s a constant cause of pain and concern – and most of all, of guilt.

But as I work on trying to fix myself, as I get treated for my troubles, one of the things that I’m being forced to do is confront my fears, to face up to them. I have to learn to not just react in the moment, but to dig into myself, and see why I react that way. I need to understand what makes me fear, what causes my anxiety. And that has led me to wondering about causes and responsibility, whether or not they really exist, and whether or not they really matter. Are my troubles my fault? Are they someone else’s fault? Does it really even matter?

Life sometimes intervenes in ways that help make things clearer.

I got an email yesterday. I don’t know how the sender found my address. But it was a guy I went to high school with. He heard about where I work, and wanted to know if I’d help him get an interview. It’s a very friendly email. He calls me “old buddy”, and reminisces about the good times we had together in high school.

Good times? Is he serious? Good  times??

This is a guy who tackled me on the way to a football field in gym class – just for the fun of being able to hit me. In the fall, I sprained my wrist – and for the duration of the time I needed to wear a brace, he proudly referred to it as his brace, because I was wearing it because of what he did to me. He was really proud of it: Hurrah! he’d injured a geek!

Yeah, good times.

I feel guilty about the indirect harm I do to my family because of my anxiety. But there is a reason that I’m like this. And there are people to blame for it. And… they don’t care. They either don’t remember it, or they think that torturing another person, deliberately, for fun, is such a trivial unimportant thing that it just doesn’t matter: “Sure, I used to beat you up. Sure I used to torment you on a regular basis. But it was all in good fun! Now help me get a job!”

In the long run, it doesn’t matter. Whether or not my problems were caused by what others did to me is ultimately unimportant. Because they can’t fix it. There’s only one person in the world who can fix me – and that’s me. I don’t know if I can, but I’m trying. But damn it, I wish that the tormentors could, at the very least, feel a little bit guilty. That someone who abused me could acknowledge that what they did to me was wrong. It wouldn’t undo any of the damage; it wouldn’t make it any easier to work through the process of trying to mend my scars. But it might just do a little bit to restore my faith in humanity.

Categories: Social Anxiety Tags: , ,

Why?

August 11, 2010 1 comment

One thing that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is why I am the way I am.

For a long time, I believed that I knew the answer. See, I was seriously abused back in my school days. My family moved when I was in fifth grade, and from that point on, I was the class reject. I don’t want to dwell on the stuff I went through – but it was awful. I was physically beaten, and emotionally isolated and tormented. It’s fair to say that from the time we moved until the time I graduated high school, every single time that I thought I’d made a friend, they’d turn on me.

It seems like that’s the answer. Those horrible things happened to me, and as a result, I’ve got this fear, this expectation that people will betray me.

And yet…

It doesn’t really seem to make sense.

I graduated high school and went to college. And in college, I made friends. It wasn’t necessarily easy, but it wasn’t anything close to traumatic either. I went on to grad school, and made friends. It was harder than it was in college, but still, nothing close to the crippling trouble I have now.

After I graduated, and started working, that’s when the serious isolation started. Not immediately – but over time, it got progressively worse.

So how can I really say that it’s high school that did it? It didn’t stop me from being social in college, so why would it now? But if that’s not the reason, then why?

Is there a reason? Does asking why even make sense? It seems like it must! There has to be something, some reason, some cause. I can’t believe that there isn’t a reason. And yet, I also can’t make sense out of reasons. The reasons that make sense don’t seem to be connected to the times when things really changed.

Categories: Social Anxiety Tags: ,