the courage to tell the story

I am entirely impressed — blown away, really — by the mind’s willfulness, determination, doggedness at making itself heard. It will pound on the door patiently, or not patiently, for years and decades if it needs to. It won’t ever stop. It will beg and plead for attention and when attention is not given it will cry and scream and kick the door down. The injuries of the past, the wounds that shaped us by carving into live flesh, seek redress. Sometime the only possible redress is a long, slow process of metamorphosing the past into present, so that it can be acknowledged, processed, comforted, and forever put to rest. There are memories that integrate into the fabric of one’s personal history and memories that refuse to do that. The latter speak to us every day. Often, they shout. It is maddening to be the only person who hears the shouting.

Traumatic events have a way of stopping the accumulation of one’s history (this happens at the collective level too). A traumatic event is like a partial blockage in an artery. What would otherwise keep flowing gets stuck to it. Soon the screaming memories accumulate. The artery explodes. The body rearranges itself around the injury.

At the beginning of my analysis, in talking about my friendships, I would discuss a lot, and with great frustration, how little I felt reciprocated by my friends. This had been a theme in my life for a long while. I felt that often people just didn’t give back. The amount of pain this caused me was tremendous, for all sorts of really complicated reasons. I am aware of the fact that people, myself included, are limited. I am aware that we have only so much to give, or maybe we have a lot to give, but that specific lot is not something another might want or even need. Yet, even as I felt tremendously frustrated at not getting back goods that I could use and enjoy (I’m not talking about material goods, though those count too, and their symbolic value is huge), I was unable to withdraw my givingness from my friends. I simply had to keep on giving. This double bind drove me crazy with anguish.

Having lived with all this for years, I came to narrow down the scope of my expectations, and feel that one way in which people could always return my givingness, a currency that was always viable and acceptable to me, something I could reasonably expect them always to give me, was money. Of course, this was a fantasy: you can’t ask your friends to pay you for your friendship. But maybe you can expect them to spring for coffee, or buy you lunch once in a while… that kind of stuff.

Since, however, people are just as generous and tuned in with when it comes to money as with everything else they have to offer, this presumptive lowering of the bar of reciprocation only managed to focus my anger. Focused fury is not less furious. Focused fury is like sunlight through a magnifying glass: it burns.

I think I railed about this in therapy for months, then, for some reason, maybe simply external reasons (friends moved, I become more solitary, etc.), this topic petered out. During my railings, my therapist mostly listened. She knew, I think, that these things are symbolic of other, deeper things, and that it takes time for the deeper things to surface. My fury at my friends’ lack of reciprocation was my psyche knocking at the door.

On Friday I found myself talking about my childhood in terms in which I had never heard myself discuss it before. I talked about how my parents demanded certain things from me, things that should not be asked, much less demanded, of a child, and if they thought I was stupid kid who did not notice they were clueless. I was keeping tabs. I was keeping tabs big time. I had it all recorded in the ledger of my little mind: every thing I had ever done for which I had gone uncompensated by gratitude, acknowledgment, or even just a fucking present. The list of the things I took upon myself on behalf of my parents for which I got nothing back grew so long, I felt I was owed more than they could ever give me. And this feeling dragged into adulthood. In adult conversations with my mom, my feeling that some things were simply owed me came out over and over. I was owed a good listening, for instance, even if it hurt my mom to hear, because I had carried this pain all this time for her and she owed it to me to share it with me. It was pain she had occasioned. She was my only witness. I didn’t care if it hurt to hear. I had been carrying the pain every day of my life and I was carrying it still. She owed me to hear me out, fully and truly.

While I was telling my therapist this story (I got quite worked up, because the sense of injustice of the little kid who was me was just as alive and burning hot at the time of the retelling as it had been at the time when these events first occurred) I realized, in a corner of my mind, that my obsession with exact reciprocation in friendship had its roots in these childhood injustices. It took three years for my mind to go from knocking on the door to speaking.

This feels tremendous to me. I have really been tortured by the symptom: the feeling of being constantly shortchanged by my friends. It’s been one of the banes of my adult life. The realization of its roots feels incredibly liberating to me.

And there was, of course, tremendous shame to overcome in telling my therapist about the kid who had given and given and not been paid back, because, you see, that kid had let it happen. You try telling the kid, “But you were just a kid.” The kid will scoff at you. She feels she should not have bent. She feels she should have died rather than give in. So it was brave, my telling. Not the conscious act of telling — the telling wasn’t that deliberately done — but the conscious decision to let go, to let the story pour out of me, to not hold back. That was courageous.

Artwork by Trash60.

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