Sunday, September 27, 2009

adult supervision

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.
- Samuel Johnson

Wow, I've been a bad blogger this month. There are some good reasons for this, which I'll cover in another post, but for now, I'll just apologize (sorry!) and get on with it.

I fear this post is going to be a personal one, folks, and a bit terrifying for someone of my retiring disposition. But as much as I'm tempted to just skip it and instead tell you about my lunch at the fab Mexican place in Port Chester today (tacos! amazingly fresh tortillas! and horchata!), I think I need to tackle this.

... Okay, so about 10 minutes have gone by since I wrote those few sentences. I'm feeling kind of self-conscious and exposed. Let's just write it all out, audience be damned, and then see what we've got.

This post is about what the pop psych people call "intimacy issues"; if this topic gives you the shakes or an overwhelming sense of ennui, please feel free to click elsewhere.

To follow up on crybaby: I'm not being such a waterworks any more (though those sappy commercials that feature lovely young people being sweet and attentive to charming and grateful old people always, always get me). In fact, the situation that sparked crybaby has turned out to be what I, if I were prone to these types of phrases, might call a teaching moment.

I haven't had much success with romantic relationships in my life, and I've fouled up a fair share of friendships, too. It's a cliché, I know, but when someone gets close to me - or more to the point, when I get close to someone - all sorts of "Danger, Will Robinson!" flashing lights and waving robot arms start up, and I put on the brakes so hard that I typically pull a Rockford and end up zooming in the opposite direction. (How you like those metaphors?)

Why, you ask? Well, that's the $64,000 question. (Actually, I haven't hit the $64,000 mark on this one yet, but if I continue with the steady stream of checks to my therapist, it could happen.) It's mostly to do with trust, which is a tough one for me, and the lack thereof, and a lifelong sense that all it takes is one little mistake on my part (or one moment where I slip and show you my real self), and I'm off your list. So instead of sticking around in a relationship and trying to make sure I don't make any mistakes, which is of course impossible, I head for the door myself. Or I perversely create a minefield of self-fulfilling prophecies - finding all sorts of ways to test this poor man, hold him up to impossible standards, criticize him when he fails, until he is at his wit's end and declares, "This isn't working!" Which of course, I knew all along.

Nothing gets my defenses up like the feeling that I'm being rejected, and it's a feeling that can be triggered all too easily, by a prick to the ego, a broken date, a disappointment, a frustration that he couldn't read my mind and know exactly what I needed, even when I was saying that I didn't want it. It's crazy-making, for me, for him, for anyone who gets sucked into my insane parallel universe. At moments like this, I can go from sweetness and affection to utter rage and scorn in no time flat. The interior monologue goes something like this: "I can't believe he did that. This is ridiculous - this person is not for me, this is all wrong, why are we bothering when we can't even get along, enough already, done."

Sadly, once it starts up, the interior monologue is tough to shut down. It gathers momentum, drowning out all vestiges of rational thought, precluding honest conversation and openness. The moment - and the relationship - becomes completely about my being in control: I'm the one who sees all the problems, and who never relents or opens up or shares anything that might weaken my position of power. When I look back at times like this, it's as if I had been possessed by a demon, and my own feelings and judgments and self were utterly erased.

You wouldn't believe how difficult it is for me to try to break these patterns. For instance, when I'm being just a nightmare to someone, cold and critical and distant, and I manage to recognize that I'm doing this and that it's not the ideal course of events, I'll tell myself that I need to start a conversation about what's going on with me, get it out in the open. So there I am, in my head, trying to encourage myself to open up and stop punishing and perhaps even apologize, and it feels terrifying, as if I'm giving away the farm. It's like the crazy girl in the movies who ends up crumpled on the floor, screaming and crying and scuttling herself into a corner, where she huddles and screams some more, terrified that the nice man in the white jacket is going to take away her blankie, or whatever. That's what's living in my head, refusing to budge an inch, refusing to calm down, refusing to listen. Sometimes I can talk her down, sometimes not.

Later, when the crazy blankie girl has gone away for a rest, it feels nigh impossible to acknowledge my behavior, and to apologize. Remember how the Fonz just couldn't bring himself to say he was sorry? He'd stammer and stutter and look as if he was trying to cough up a hairball, but he just could not apologize - in his world, it was impossible that he was ever wrong. I can relate. Trying to explain myself, to account for and apologize for my bad behavior, can feel impossible, as if there is a physical impediment to speaking, a physical inability to bring forth the words.

Oy. What a mess, right?

Happily, I do feel that I'm making progress in my quest to become a better person. Now that I'm more aware of these mechanisms, I'm trying to dismantle them. I'll spare you the therapy-speak, for the most part, not because I don't believe in it, but because it just don't travel well, do it? I'll just say this: My monologue is more of an interior dialogue these days, as I try to talk myself down from this tautly strung state, down to something more human and less frightened and more willing to be open and present. It is so incredibly difficult to try out unfamiliar behavior such as this - it would be so much more comfortable to stick with the behavior I know so well. But that hasn't exactly worked for me in the past.

In the intro to Psychotherapy Without the Self, his book that attempts to reconcile psychotherapy with Buddhism, Mark Epstein writes the following:

In particular, the British analyst D. W. Winnicott moved therapy from a focus on unacceptable instincts and urges to a focus on the unintelligible aspects of emotional experience. 'We are poor indeed if we are only sane,' he remarked once in a famous footnote. [Love that! -Ed.] Winnicott had the idea that the opposite of integration (the state of an apparently cohesive self) is not disintegration but something he termed unintegration. Here he was moving away from Freud and toward the Buddha. He compared unintegration to what it is like for a child to surrender himself in play, knowing that his mother is in the next room providing what he called 'good-enough ego coverage.' He also compared it to a lover's consciousness 'after intercourse,' when the urges are relaxed and the mind and heart are open, and to an artist's mind when unburdened in the studio. He saw the state of unintegration as the foundation of creativity and wrote volumes about the consequences of failing to tap into it. When a child has to manage an intrusive or ignoring parental environment, Winnicott suggested, he or she is forced to develop a 'false' or 'caretaker' self, centered in the thinking mind, in order to survive. This false self (which can paradoxically seem 'really real') is created at the expense of unintegration, and the capacities for spontaneity, subjectivity, and authenticity are all compromised as a result. Winnicott, in his own way, seemed to be describing something akin to how the Buddhist unconscious could be covered over by early experience.

This whole passage is incredibly powerful to me - to the point where I don't think I feel ready to write about how I believe these concepts relate to me - but perhaps most powerful is the parens about the "false" self, "which can paradoxically seem 'really real'." It's fascinating to me how right the crazy blankie girl can sound, and also fascinating to begin to recognize how I can have a different opinion and perspective and approach from hers, that I can try to figure out why she's so upset, and try to calm her down, and try to get her out of the driver's seat. Revelatory, my friends. It feels kind of like growing up - and about time.

Fabulous "madwoman" button from

Monday, September 14, 2009


You know when you're in one of those moods where everything makes you cry? Maybe you're a little tired, or maybe you're weak from the flu, or maybe your heart suffered a blow and you've been crying anyway, so why not cry some more when, say, the winner of the Open falls to the court and starts sobbing after match point? Or when Beyoncé proves herself to be a class act above and beyond what anyone ever expected at an MTV event? Or when a ridiculously corny song comes on the radio and just seems to exactly and unbearably sum up your experience? (My classic example of this is when I was on vacation in Hawaii with Thom and Alex, right after Thom had suffered a devastating breakup. The three of us are sitting at a picnic table, eating shave ice, when a Gloria Estefan song comes over the loudspeaker. The first verse isn't even over, and Thom is already up and hurrying away, clearly sobbing. Alex and I look at each other and say, simultaneously, "Gloria Estefan? Really?" That was the clue that led us to realize what bad shape Thom was in. As Amanda says in Private Lives, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.")

For me, today's waterworks instigator was coming across this passage from The Little Prince, a book that, like The Velveteen Rabbit, can make me cry even when there's not a copy within a mile; all I have to do is picture the fox, asking the Prince to tame him... or the poor rabbit, ashamed that he has no hind legs like the real rabbits... oh oh oh!

A-nee-way, here's the passage:

And he confided further, "In those days, I didn't understand anything. I should have judged her according to her actions, not her words. She perfumed my planet and lit up my life. I should never have run away! I ought to have realized the tenderness underlying her silly pretensions. Flowers are so contradictory! But I was too young to know how to love her."

There are many ways in which this quote from The Little Prince does not at all parallel my situation (for instance, I am not a rose), but when one is weepy, a shortage of parallels is no hurdle to complete identification with another's sadness, especially if this sadness is in one of the great tear-jerker books of all time.

If you're a reasonably good between-the-lines reader, perhaps you can make a rough guess as to the source of my current weepy state. Yes, dear reader, I have a bit of a heartache. I may driven someone away with my "silly pretensions," and I may have lost a chance at what could have been a good thing.

This would normally be the part of the essay where I would try to come up with some wanderings on this subject, accompanied by some interesting and insightful gleanings, perhaps a bit of profundity on the nature of love and loss, along with maybe a funny line or anecdote, and then wrap everything up in a brilliantly deft maneuver that would pack an emotional wallop (note that I said "try to come up with"). Nothing is presenting itself at the moment.

It's tough to think up something original to say about romantic disappointment. After all, it's been covered, oh, here and there, over the years, with various heroines pitching themselves in front of trains or off of towers, a double suicide in iambic pentameter, a hero running through the desert to try to get help for his beloved, who he left in a cave after the plane crash, but then the British soldiers thought he was a spy and dragged him off in chains, and then he jumped off the train and commandeered a plane to get back to the cave, but it was too late... {*sob*}

So, really, what is there left to say about heartache? Basically, it hurts like mad, you try to get through the worst of it as best you can, you try to take something from it that will help you on your journey, and hopefully, you don't let it scar too badly. Because apparently, we need to keep trying, for reasons the Little Prince's fox can express much more eloquently than I:

"My life is very monotonous," the fox said. "I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . ."