Introducing Perks Magazine!

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Rhonda Perky’s Bits is branching out. Perks Magazine is a sex-positive exploration of sex, sexuality, relationships and life’s perks.

This site will remain as an archive of Rhonda Perky’s Bits, with new personal reflections appearing under the RPB blog within Perks Magazine. Occasionally pieces from RPB will be republished within Perks, which will also house the Ask Rhonda advice column.

Learn more about Perks and check out our Submissions page. Hope to hear from you soon!

–RP

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A conditional hug

Adventure Girl gets some perspective on her past

A conditional hug

Source: Jesslee Cuizon, Flickr

One evening when I was eighteen, my boyfriend and I were in his living room with his sisters when his dad arrived home from work.

Mr Johns was tired. He was grumpy. He was sore. A car accident had left him with some memory impairment, a heap of medical bills and a flailing business.

Still he walked in, leaned down to give his sixteen-year-old daughter a kiss on the forehead, and his thirteen-year-old a big bear-hug.

My chest tightened. My arms ached. Cold crept across my shoulders.

There was nothing sinister in those gestures. Nothing creepy at all. Both girls responded with warmth and the indifference of routine comfort. They were used to receiving this affection. They expected it.

***

Sometimes I feel as if I have no skin. Nothing to shield me. Other times I feel surrounded by cement barricades. In that moment I had both.

The skinless me felt shredded, longing to be held and loved, to experience such a simple gesture, given with wholesome and genuine love. To experience affection free from sexual overtones and a sense that something isn’t quite right, that the touch isn’t given freely — touch that is not given at all, but taken. And just as quickly taken away.

Cement-covered me felt a deep, seething anger. Why had I never experienced this? Why had I never realised this was how things could and should be. This affection wasn’t staged, like you see on TV. It was genuine. Natural. Clean.

I always knew something didn’t feel right, that my dad wasn’t like other dads; I just didn’t know why. That one nightly ritual illustrated exactly what was wrong, demonstrating it is possible for a man, a father, to love with affection and caring and warmth. To express that love as a gift and not expect anything in return. You do not have to be their audience, their emotional punching bag. You do not have to walk on eggshells, even when they’ve had a bad day. You are of value in and of yourself, not as an object, and not as an adjunct to them.

My grieving process began. I mourned not for something I had lost, but for something I never had.

***

A few years later I tried to combat the squeamishness whenever my father touched me. I wanted to stop feeling that he was taking from me, that I had no boundaries. I believed that if I initiated the contact, I might retain control. On my terms, not his. And so I hugged him.

Even at my instigation, when we made contact — even before — I couldn’t shake the clamminess that ran the length of my arms, the shudder that worked its way to my stomach. The boundaries I had tried to set were ignored and ripped away. He determined when the contact ended, not me. And in the moments between I felt suffocated, terrified. I don’t want to use the word ‘violated’. He did not touch me where he should not. But it is the right word for how he made me feel.

I did not try to initiate contact again, and avoided his instigation whenever I could.

I don’t know if he ever intended his contact to be sexual, but through his inability to see people as anything other than objects, his misogyny and sense of entitlement, he projected a persona that was inappropriate, hyper-sexualised and completely lacking in boundaries.

I also don’t know how much of my discomfort was my projection based on the persona I saw. All I know is how it felt, and it was not the big-bear hug a father should be able to give his daughters.

***

Not long after this failed experiment, my parents separated. I took the opportunity to break contact with my father altogether. And I grieved all over again, for myself, for my mother, and for the childhood I would never have.

I had to accept that you can’t change the past, just as you can’t change other people. Nor can you force them to see the past from your point of view. You can only change yourself, your own perspective, and your future.

My father would never understand how he made me feel, and why that feeling was his fault, not mine. Trying to make him to see it, to acknowledge it, would be setting myself up for new hurt on top of old.

***

I have tried since then to re-establish contact — touch-free — but he has not changed. He also does not see how I have changed. I am not a person in my own right, but an extension of, and audience for, him.

My skin is a little thicker these days, and there are only occasional patches of concrete surrounding me. I go in to these encounters as an observer, not expecting anything from him — I have given myself what I need. I have found closure within, independent of any action or acknowledgement by him. It was the only way I could move on.

As painful as the memory of that fatherly kiss and hug remains, I am grateful to have it. It made something click in my brain, something I had not understood before. It legitimised the feeling I carried with me that something wasn’t right, but more importantly, that it wasn’t my fault. He was broken, not me. And that is what kicked off the healing process — a process that provided a shift in perspective and freed me.

–AG

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‘Coping’ — side-stepping the moment

Adventure Girl learns why sometimes it’s okay to need help

'Coping' -- side-stepping the moment

Source: madamepsychosis, Flickr

‘You dissociate too easily. I need you to keep one foot in the present when you recount your past.’

At the time my cancer was discovered, and during my subsequent treatment, people were surprised at how well I ‘coped’.

It’s not the first time I have surprised people in this way. When my partner of ten years up and left several years back, people commented on how ‘well’ I was doing. I guess in contrast to my day-to-day extraverted emotion — the heart I wear on my sleeve — I would have appeared calm, ‘together’.

The reality is that I struggle with needing people. I want to feel independent and strong, so when faced with really big stuff, I ‘cope’.

Except when coping, what I am actually doing is dissociating. I push the pain away — somewhere — but not where I am, not in the present moment. I step away from my emotions and my rational brain kicks in and takes over. My responses are calm because they are detached.

This means when people offer me support, in that moment, I shrug it off. There is nothing there for them to support me through, because I am not in touch with those emotions, that need — even that I have a need. At least, not right then.

This dissociation manifests in different ways. In times of crisis, it allows me to detach and simply focus on whatever tasks are in front of me. When someone hurts me, it allows me to push the hurt aside and deal with the situation coldly and rationally, and hide that hurt from them. It also means when I recall a memory, or evoke a fictional scene, I step out of the present and into the moment as though it were happening right in front of me.

'Coping' -- side-stepping the moment

Source: madamepsychosis, Flickr

My dissociation helps me to write, because I can recreate moments, and it helps me to cope because I can step away from intense emotions, but it means I don’t always process things in the here and now, or even soon after, when I probably should. Instead I carry the pain around with me until it feels safe to let it out.

For the most part it serves me well. It allows me to get on with the task at hand, and I process things eventually. Earlier this year, however, it got me into trouble. My cancer treatment was over, and I should have been settling back into regular life, but I wasn’t. I felt stuck. Trapped. I was at the bottom of a steep pit with no rope or foothold to climb out. At the same time, some of my friendships came to an end. One friend told me she was disappointed that I ‘couldn’t put my issues aside for her birthday’. My ‘issues’ were later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress.

From what I understand (and this is my layman’s explanation — a professional can probably correct me) risk factors for developing post-traumatic stress include not having a support network at the time of the event, or ‘trauma’, and not being able to recount your story. People who have faced a trauma need to tell their story over and over, in excruciating detail and in a supported environment, to help normalise the experience and to help detach, so that it becomes an ordinary memory to be processed and stored. It is the reason psychologists recommend narrative therapy and support groups for people who have undergone traumatic experiences.

Memories of unprocessed trauma can surface unexpectedly, intrusively. You feel afraid for no apparent reason, irritable, emotional. You avoid certain places, certain objects, things that might remind you of the unprocessed event. You might experience a loss of control, and compensate by trying to control everything else. Anything that represents a further loss can be irrationally terrifying or infuriating.

Although my cancer scare wasn’t actually life-threatening (the lump was removed, the area was treated, and I now face no more than an increased risk of another cancer in the future), in the moment, hearing the words, knowing what could be, I dissociated. All I could focus on was reassuring others, especially my mum, whose friend had died of breast cancer when she was the same age as me. I was alone when they told me, because I wasn’t expecting the scan to be anything sinister. I don’t have a family history or any reason to consider breast cancer a risk. I thought the lump was going to be some sort of blocked duct or cyst, nothing more.

‘Do you need us to call someone?’ they had asked. ‘No. No, I don’t need anyone.’

The surgeon didn’t mention the C-word. It was ‘DCIS’ or ‘pre-cancer’. I’ve had pre-cancerous cells on my cervix, and they were removed with no further treatment required. Why was this different?

Yet I was booked in for surgery within days and medical staff were handing me books about ‘early breast cancer’. Apparently this was different to cervical dysplasia. Breast cancer behaves differently, is more aggressive and difficult to treat — at least, that’s what I pieced together while everyone was avoiding naming what the lump really was. Never mind that I might lose my breast or what I might feel about my body after all this.

It was only later, when I sat looking at the books and saw the figures — survival rates calculated over the next five years (I would be 40) — that it really hit me.

Except it didn’t. Not fully. I was looking at the crows-feet-eyes of the middle-aged women on the booklet covers, and the thirty-something mothers and hearing ‘DCIS’. I had nothing in common with them.

In the same week a house-mate announced she wanted to move out, I had attended the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to sort out a dispute with my tenants, my boss (the only person left who I could trust in my workplace) had resigned, and my partner’s dad was visiting, with various family trips planned. Then my friend (the one whose birthday I wasn’t able to give my all to a few months later) announced she wanted to leave her husband. She was the same age I had been when my husband and I separated, and I became her main support person. Even if I had wanted to process what was happening to me, I didn’t really have time.

And it’s not that I didn’t have a support network. People were there for me in the next few weeks. So many people. I accepted visits gratefully. I made jokes and spoke in a detached way about what was happening to me physically, but I didn’t really talk about my fear. Instead of letting them help me, I put on my ‘there are people here to attend to’ façade and coped. At my insistence I walked to surgery by myself, I took care of as much as possible, and I was there for my friends when they needed it.

During the following weeks I noticed a strange heart murmur that kept cropping up. An irregular beat, like a frantic thud, followed by shortness of breath. Investigation showed nothing more sinister than a stress-induced misfiring valve, a benign abnormality that had probably always been there, triggered by the emotions I wasn’t processing.

During the following months I went from one physical side-effect of treatment to another, always focusing on my body, never on what was happening in my mind. From a post-surgery infection to a seroma, from cording to lymphedema, followed by knee and hip misalignment where my body was trying to compensate for everything going on up top. Next was the chronic constipation and blocked bowel that had taken me to the GP in the first place, and I finally got around to a colonoscopy and follow-up Pap test — monitoring the other pre-cancers discovered in my body.

I was so busy focusing on what was happening physically that I ignored what was going on in my mind.

My brain wasn’t going to let it pass, however. If I wasn’t ready to face the emotions, it would instead send my body to sleep. I was sleeping for twelve, sometimes fourteen hours a day, and it still wasn’t enough. This made getting on with things difficult, and ultimately upped my stress as deadlines slipped away.

Then my inability to stay awake began to alternate with hyper-vigilance and an inability to get to sleep. I lay awake, paranoid and fearful, my mind switching from deathly quiet to a cacophony. I began to dream, not about the cancer, but about my abusive ex. On several occasions I woke believing he was in the house, that he was stalking me. A trick of the light could make everything flicker and change until I was in his room and my partner was him, looking at me through those same deadened eyes.

I was terrified of everyone and everything, and nobody understood. I felt completely immobilised inside my own life. Hopeless and helpless.

'Coping' -- side-stepping the moment

Source: Kiran Foster, Flickr

I could no longer distinguish childhood me from the person I am now. I had no mechanism to escape the shame of everything I have ever been and loathed: jealous, insecure, manipulative, weak, helpless, angry. The anger inside me was at times so frightening, and I couldn’t switch it off. Occasionally it leaked out, unexpectedly, and completely misdirected. Then I felt more shame for having lost control so inappropriately. Most of all I wanted to stop being a burden on the people around me, especially my partner, who had to put up with my crazy.

I felt guilty for falling apart when I was okay, I wasn’t dying, and there are people so much worse off than me. I found out an old boss had been diagnosed with cancer at around the same time as me. She had to have her breast removed and underwent chemotherapy. And my childhood next door neighbour was diagnosed with bowel cancer. She passed away last month. I had and have no right to these emotions, and so I tried to fight them, but it only made them worse.

All of this was swirling through my brain, and I couldn’t tell any more what was past and what was present. I was re-experiencing emotions that were long gone, and beating myself up for them.

My partner got me in to see a doctor when it became apparent I couldn’t even manage that, and I had to take a chunk of time off work. But even then another good friend was going through a long-term relationship break-up and I was trying to be there for her. I had study to complete and articles to write. I was looking for jobs and a place to live interstate, and all I wanted was to find somewhere safe where I could hold the child inside me and cry.

'Coping' -- side-stepping the moment

Source: Vicky Sedgwick, Flickr

Meanwhile a very good friend found me a trauma counsellor, someone who specialises in cancer patients. The GP and then my therapist explained why I was feeling this way and helped normalise the experience for me. Reassured that I wasn’t going crazy, I felt more in control. The therapist gave me articles to read on trauma and coping techniques, and taught me to lock my memories away until I have the skills and mechanisms to cope with processing them. This we would do in a controlled environment to avoid triggering my flashbacks. I learned that one trauma can trigger another, which is why the loss of control over my cancer triggered the unprocessed trauma of the abusive relationship.

I got to a point where I was able to ‘cope’ once more. The depression and anxiety were manageable, and the flashbacks had mostly stopped. I no longer needed to control every little thing, feeling fearful and irritable. I went back to work and got on with my study, and I put off the move and job hunt, taking away as many added pressures as I could.

Eventually I had to stop my therapy. I ran out of Medicare visits and my counsellor told me I can’t process the trauma until I learn to stop dissociating. We tried processing some things, but whenever we evoked a memory, just as I step out of a present moment in order to cope, my brain stepped out of the present and into the past, re-experiencing as though it were happening all over again. Even as I type, I can barely see the screen through my tears: recounting my story feels as real as if I were there now.

So where does this leave me? My unprocessed trauma remains in a hypothetical box. I have some new skills to help keep me grounded, and some others to help with my anxiety.

My next task is to learn how to stop reliving the past, to stop beating myself up and evoking the shame of who I have been — and I’m talking about the person I was as a child and a teenager, who had diffuse boundaries and an over-abundance of uncontrolled emotions. I have to remind myself that I am not her any more, and any time I see someone displaying similar behaviours, it’s not me.

But perhaps that’s not it at all. Maybe the real task is to learn to accept and forgive that part of me. Because although I am not that person now (as an adult I have learned more appropriate behaviours and responses and I can see the many shades of grey), she has been me. I have been her.

Perhaps when I slip into the past, I can instead ask the child-me what she feels, listen to her story in detail, and give her the support to quiet her anger and her fears. Maybe if I allow her to accept support from me, she will learn that it doesn’t make her weak, that she won’t lose herself because of it, and we can both learn to recognise our emotions in the moment, to know when we need help, and not be frightened to accept it when it’s offered.

–A.G.

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My fear

Adventure Girl learns the true cost of being afraid

‘As a general rule, the less one’s sense of life fulfilment, the greater one’s death anxiety.’ –Dr Irvin Yalom, Love’s Executioner

My father was an intimidating man who ruled by fear. Asking for help meant causing trouble, but not asking and messing things up was far worse. From this I learnt that unless I was certain I could get something right (or that I could quietly correct what went wrong), it was safer not to try.

Meanwhile my mother taught me and my sisters not to attempt things that might be dangerous, not to venture too far, and to always walk the same way so she could find us if we strayed. Perhaps she feared losing control of us in case she, too, incurred my father’s ire.

In my mid-thirties I find I am still afraid to explore, to step outside the limits of what I know, and strike a new path. What if I mess up? What if I get into trouble? If I get lost, who will find me?

At times my fear is crippling. I struggle to make big decisions, such as what career to pursue, in what part of the world to live, even what kind of person to be. With no path carved out for me, I don’t know how to get there, or if I’ll be any good once I do. What if I make a mistake?

In my day-to-day, when faced with a new task or challenge, instead of accepting it is okay not to know how to do something, that making the occasional blunder is perfectly all right, I shrink into a knotted ball of anxiety.

The only thing greater than my fear of messing up, is my fear of missing a deadline. While in my anxious ball, I procrastinate, avoiding the task itself, instead searching for an answer, hoping it will click in my brain and I won’t have to ask for help. Eventually I am cornered, forced to start or miss my deadline, with no time to second guess whether I might make a mistake, or to worry about the quality of what I produce.

For the most part I manage to work things out, but the time in between is excruciating. I feel like a failure, a fraud, and a fool.

My feelings of inadequacy are compounded when I encounter people for whom life, tasks, and choices, are simple. What could I possibly find so hard? An attitude, a demeanour, a phrase, can send me back into the mind of seven-year-old me. Lost, frightened and dismissed as stupid or bothersome. I feel as though I can’t ask for help, that I need to work it out on my own, and if I make a mistake I am certain to bring down some cataclysmic eruption. People will know I am a fake and see the useless little girl I hide beneath.

People tell me this is ridiculous. To them I appear strong, intelligent and capable. They don’t see what goes on inside my head, the things I won’t even try.

From the outside, I appear to have a home, a partner, a successful career, but it is not a path I would have chosen.

Growing up I wanted to be a writer, but writing was not a safe career, so my passion was relegated to a hobby. If I am honest, this was with some relief. I never had to put my ability to the test.

My next choice was to become a teacher, to be immersed in learning, and teaching English and Literature, I could continue to write. But when my then boyfriend sat me down and said, ‘You’re too emotional, the kids will walk all over you,’ I knew he was right. The hidden child-me could never face a room full of adolescents. Academia was just as daunting, more so because there was no clear path to follow.

In the end I enrolled in science. I saw a world of ideas and theories and hoped to combine what I learned with writing to make science more accessible. But the leap from high school to university was too great. Stuffed into giant lecture theatres, I was surrounded by strangers who all seemed to know what was going on, while I floundered, and the three-hour practicals were like taking twice-weekly exams of what I do worst: using my hands, not my words.

I didn’t want to cause trouble and I had nowhere to turn. I was too afraid to ask for help, to admit I was lost. For the first time in my life I tried something I expected to do well at and failed.

My self-perception plummeted. I didn’t know how to pull myself out, to re-frame my less-than-perfect outcome and learn from it, so I switched paths altogether.

Out of university I took the first grown-up job that came my way, unrelated to my studies, or any of my interests, but it was safe and it paid the bills. For years I didn’t write, didn’t learn, I just worked, climbing the ladder that was in front of me because it was there and because I needed to feel like I was achieving something. I was completely hollow inside.

From there I side-stepped into a job more suited to my abilities, where I could actually use my analytical brain, but it was not the path I would have chosen. Eventually I enrolled in professional writing and finished a Masters alongside my day job, one slow subject at a time.

For eight or nine years now, I have studied alongside my work, stealing snatches of time around the edges of my life to write, to pursue my true interests, to try to work out what I want to do and how to get there. I try to also maintain my fitness, my social life, and my various obligations, yet I always feel the pull of what I’m not getting done.

It has been a long time since I simply took a stroll, meandering just to see what there is to see, without feeling guilty, or the urgency of my eternal to-do list. I lust for the time to simply read a book, to not feel rushed and pressured to get the next task done. Yet fear keeps me clinging to the familiar path while I try to chip away at something new.

Last year I finally allowed myself to entertain an entirely new career, the study of sexuality, relationships and human behaviour. I have always wanted to understand why we do the things we do, how we relate to one another and how this impacts on our sexuality. I knew that leaping, rather than stepping, off my familiar path, was the only real way to prevent me clinging to safety, so I had planned to resign my job, move interstate, enrol in this new discipline and establish a whole other career.

At the time it felt liberating. I was following a path that I had actively chosen. But then my partner wasn’t able to take the leap with me, at least, not when I needed to. A job offer fell through, and the course I had enrolled in turned out to be another source of anxious unknown. Not a distinct path to a concrete career, but specialist knowledge to build upon a career foundation that I don’t have, and one that will take years of study to acquire. I just don’t have the resources or the energy left in me.

So here I am in my home town, still at the same job, taking one subject at a time, and trying to slowly and painstakingly carve a new path alongside the one I fell into. I am exhausted.

I wonder how different my life would be if I had been encouraged to explore, to cross boundaries, to exceed limits. If I was allowed to take things apart, just to see how they worked inside, with no fear of reprisal if they couldn’t be pieced back together. If asking for help had been rewarded, rather than punished and being less than perfect had been okay. Instead I feel trapped inside my own life, by its security, by my fear of taking a new path and making a mistake.

Possibly the only thing more terrifying than taking the leap is what will happen if I don’t. Am I using my procrastination tactic once more, but with my entire life? Will the pressure build and build until I have no choice but to take the leap and scrounge for a new path?

I can see the warped logic, but it is flawed. I know myself better than that. Left to free-fall I am likely to take the nearest and safest path, the one that is most familiar, not the one I truly want to follow.

And that’s the real toll of this fear. Not the turmoil, the tears, the sleepless nights, the sheer exhaustion and terror of getting something wrong. It’s the opportunities I miss. The paths I don’t take. The life I have been too afraid to live, and the person I have been too frightened to embrace.

–AG

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The friendship destroyer

The friendship destroyer

Source: Louis Konstantinou, Flickr

Adventure Girl learns a lesson on why some friendships are best left alone

At some point you have probably encountered a friendship-destroyer. I’m sure you know her, or one just like her. She latches on to you, you introduce her to your friends, she latches on to your friends. She causes fights and provokes jealousies. Your friends, who were getting along just fine before, are divided, and eventually their relationships are destroyed.

It happens in stages. At first everyone welcomes her, and she puts on her best face. She likes your friends and they like her. Before long, the dynamic shifts. You hear how after a night on the town she monopolised the one guy Sally was interested in, while Carol was left out completely. The other guys, the ones your friends aren’t keen on, will chase her, but she never shows any interest in them.

From her, you hear how she can’t help that people are jealous, that men show interest in her, that women find her threatening. And the other guys, the ones with no entanglements, always misinterpret her attention as something more. But it’s not her fault. Why is she always the bad guy?

There will be tears, heartache, anger, and when she is done, she makes a swift exit, latching on to the next friend, and their friends, and starts the process over. Meanwhile your friendships and relationships will never be quite the same.

Stupidly, I have let the same person do this to me twice. It was years apart, and I thought she had changed, finally grown up. I was wrong.

The first time, I had recently come out of a ten-year relationship, and was just establishing my own social networks as a single woman. As an introvert, most of my interactions tend to happen one-on-one, but on a couple of occasions, I had invited a group of my friends to come together. I included this particular girlfriend, and she seemed to engage and interact well with everyone. I was delighted. I should bring this group of friends together more often.

I didn’t know then that she would systematically rip the group apart.

The girl in question — let’s call her Joan — is an initiator. Joan needs constant activity, and is always suggesting meetups, events to attend and things for her friends to try. Before long she was arranging events and inviting my friends. I’m not partial to organisation, so when Joan stepped up, I sat back, grateful to follow her lead. It didn’t occur to me to ask why she was organising events with my friends, and not inviting me along to events with hers.

I should have seen the few glitches along the way. The girls who were wary, the guys who told me there was something not quite right. What I saw was the opportunity to have a group of people who I loved come together, to feel like I belonged, and to share in fun and warmth, so welcome after the desolation of my marriage.

The end came when Joan organised a camping trip. As usual she assumed control. She made lists of who should bring what, who should pay how much and to whom. My friends are laid back, and in this sort of situation, accommodating. There is no bean-counting and everyone is happy to share and let things just happen. They assumed Joan would be the same.

Before we had even left I heard mumbled complaints from Joan. Janet hadn’t paid her share. Belinda and Michael had pulled out, upping the cost for everyone else. When we arrived she protested that my friends were disruptive and inconsiderate. The trip was tense and excruciating, and by the time we headed home, hardly anyone was speaking.

In the aftermath I heard how Joan had hoarded food and made it uncomfortable for anyone to relax and share and enjoy. From Joan: why did she get lumped with responsibility for everything? My friends had taken advantage and left her with the bill. She could never return to that camp site now. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t her fault.

I managed to salvage individual relationships, some more successfully than others, but I never brought that group together again. On birthdays or occasional gatherings, my friends would ask if Joan would be there, and then quietly opt out if the answer was yes.

Joan and I also spent less time together. When we did, I heard how she was fed up with being the one to always initiate. None of her friends ever made contact, they always left it to her, and then made her come to them. Having been on the other side, I thought it was likely she gave them no space or opportunity to try, and insisted on coming to them, as she had always done with me. Her work relationships were just as fraught. I saw her keeping a mental ledger that no one could ever repay. I bit my tongue.

We maintained this now-and-then friendship for many years, until she re-entered my life with gusto. This time it was because her relationship of ten-plus years was ending. I was her go-to person. I had been there before and I wouldn’t judge. It worked well for a while. It was a time I needed someone, too, and I imagined she had matured in the intervening years, so welcomed her in.

Before long she was eyeing-off my friends, only this time I knew what to expect. I kept a wall between us, and quietly observed as she made her move. I was her spring-board into a new social realm, one she embraced in a way I never did. I watched her carefully select victims, latch on, initiate social activity, create chaos, destabilise, and garner attention and control for herself. At least, that’s how it appeared from the outside.

The complaints started to trickle in, how she had ruined Julia’s chances with Steve, how she had left Cindy standing alone in a bar while she and another friend hooked up with two guys. And from her, how girls she met at parties were jealous because their boyfriends spent time talking to her, how girls never liked her because they were jealous. She lamented being lonely, and the relationship patterns in her life that left her feeling sidelined, bullied, and unwelcome. Her thirtieth birthday party, for instance, was attended by a select few, who fit a certain physical mold, but almost no one who really knew her, and no one she had known for more than a year.

I tried to support her, but also cautioned that if she was worried about upsetting people and losing friends, maybe she shouldn’t latch on to her potential friends’ boyfriends. It was a red rag to a bull. She threw herself at men her friends had been, or wanted to be, involved with. She arranged meetups with guys whose girlfriends she knew felt insecure about her, and posted it all over her social media. There were check-ins and mentions everywhere they went, and everywhere the girlfriends could see.

At the same time she plastered our friendship all over her various walls. Publicly we appeared closer than we ever were in life. I couldn’t make a move without her splashing her electronic pee on me, like a cat marking its owner. This in itself caused more than one stir. I felt like I was a flag she wanted to wave in people’s faces. Then when she upset my friends, I was caught in the middle. She had marked me as her friend, a public extension of her, so her behaviour was somehow my fault.

The friendship destroyer

Source: Kevin O’Mara, Flickr

Sure enough, relationships ended, friendships were destroyed. I lost a long-standing friend, whose boyfriend had been one of Joan’s targets, and though it was a friendship we had both outgrown, the way it happened saddens me.

The end for Joan and I came when she tried her antics on one of my oldest and dearest friends, Steph. They had met through me, and Joan latched on straight away. We formed a triad of sorts, which worked while I had my boyfriend in tow, allowing Joan to monopolise Steph without being too obvious and leaving me on my own. Later she tried to close in on Steph and exclude me. She failed and lost us both.

Joan had her next friend-victim lined up, someone vulnerable, whose name she began to pee all over her social media walls. I don’t need to watch to know the fallout will happen eventually, and that it will be ugly. There are already murmurs from people she has upset, hurt, or who have simply walked away, fed up with her attention-seeking antics.

I can’t help but wonder at her motives. She says she wants friendship and acceptance, but her behaviour destroys any chance she has of obtaining either. She latches on, leeches off, then has to cauterise her wounds and walk away. What I saw the second time around appeared strategic, as though she intended to carve a path of destruction. By the end ours was her only long-standing friendship, and she destroyed that, too.

I’m not sure if my story will resonate, but I have no doubt there are others like Joan around. I missed the warning signs the first time. I didn’t know to be wary when someone tried so hard to be my friend, I didn’t know to question why someone might need to make friends with my friends so badly. The second time, I had my guard up, but even then, I was slow to respond.  Lasting friendships should develop gradually and evolve naturally. They should not be forced. And if someone doesn’t have friends of their own and needs to borrow mine, I now know to ask myself why, and back quietly away. I have learned my lesson, and I am no longer afraid to question when someone wants to be my friend, or to let them go.

–AG

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Reflection in search of an Echo

‘Adore me!’ she cries, again and again, ‘for without your eyes to see me, I might disappear.’

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Seeing all sides

Adventure Girl learns the perils of too few points of view

Over the years I have encountered many people who appear incapable of seeing anything from another person’s point of view. You probably know someone like this. Someone who is always the ‘victim’, ‘hero’ or ‘princess’ in any encounter. You’ll often hear them repeating similar stories over and over. ‘So-and-so has let me down, just like everyone before’, or ‘I’m always the one giving and never get enough in return’, and ‘I deserve/don’t deserve this.’ It doesn’t seem to matter what happens in their life, they play out the same patterns, assume the same roles and construct the same reality.

My father was one such person. I used to try to persuade him with logic and reason, hard facts, or appeal to his conscience. It didn’t matter what tactic was used, he could spin any story, any event, in such a way that he was always right, always hard done by, or better and more deserving than anyone else. To make him so, the other players would be cast as wrong, villainous, or less deserving, and nothing I or anyone else could do would make him see otherwise. There were times I was frustrated to tears. How could he not know that his arguments were illogical? How could he deny the facts in front of him? Why could he not see the impact his actions had on others? Eventually I learned that arguing with him was not only futile but exhausting.

Since then I have encountered many more people like this, who have played bigger and smaller roles in my life, but every time I have ended up baffled at their apparent inability to see the world from anyone’s point of view but their own. Perhaps it is a lack of empathy, or perhaps an unwillingness to accept any view of the world that doesn’t align with their self-belief: typically one that casts them in a set role (hero, victim, princess) and with which every encounter and every interaction must conform.

I am lucky (or perhaps unlucky) to be able to see multiple points of view, so when the victim/hero/princess is bemoaning their fate or telling their story, I can see each side, each argument or counter argument. This makes it easy to be sympathetic to all parties, but difficult to navigate with tact when that victim/hero/princess demands undivided loyalty while refusing to see any side but theirs. And if I find myself on the other side of their anger, because I am able to see their point of view, I too readily accept responsibility: ‘Yes, I can appreciate why that would have made you feel this way,’ yet the same courtesy is not extended to me. The victim/hero/princess clings to their self-belief, only seeing the story from a single point of view.

I suspect it is this self-belief that is at the core of the problem. When an event happens, our brains store it in memory as a fragment. When we retrieve that fragment, we build a narrative around it. That narrative must be consistent with our understanding of the world so as not to cause what is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’. If we find that the memory does not correlate with our world-view, we have two choices: we can shift our understanding to take into account the new information, or we can build and re-build a narrative that casts the events in such a way that it is consistent with our self-belief.

For individuals like my father, the latter is the only option. Preserving their self-belief and the role they have cast for themselves is paramount, no matter what it costs those around them.

Unfortunately, that cost can be high. When to preserve their world-view, or to live out a self-belief, a person needs to cast you in a counter-role, it can feel like an accusation. In a normal situation when someone accuses you of something you have an opportunity to rebut, to present evidence and tell your side of the story. With people like this, you don’t have that opportunity, because anything you say, any action or inaction, will be twisted, re-cast, the narrative re-written. Failing that, your side can simply be disregarded: ‘I can’t take your issues on board right now’, ‘I don’t want any drama in my life’, or a simple, ‘I’m done.’ You are acting out a play, written, cast and directed by them, and you have no right of reply: powerless.

When encountering individuals who operate in this way, I have learned it is better to walk away than to engage in any kind of debate. How can you defend yourself when the only lines that will be heard are the ones that have been scripted for you? There is no mechanism in this scenario to be heard because the accuser has no capacity or willingness to understand. To do so could threaten their world-view and self-belief. This is not a battle anyone can fight. The only sensible option is to walk away.

This strategy has served me well to a point. I have learned to recognise the pattern and the behaviour of these types of people and avoid throwing myself into hopeless battles. I simply let the argument, and them, go. On one level I can accept this: these are not the kinds of relationships I wish to pursue.

The downside is that walking away can make getting closure difficult. I refrain from having my say when I probably need to get something out. I bottle it up, feeling dis-empowered, rather than empowered by my silence. This is particularly detrimental when each new instance invokes the feelings of the old. Eventually I implode, and that doesn’t help anybody.

I don’t want my anger to fester, unresolved, so what outlet do I have? When do I get to have my say? Venting to friends who can see other people’s points of view helps, but it’s not always enough. I can’t talk to my accuser without being witness to their revisionist history and re-experiencing the powerlessness all over again. The only avenue I can see is to write my story out as fully as I can, including all sides (because I can see them). Maybe my accuser will mentally re-write them, more likely they will never read them, and though I know they are unlikely to ever see any other point of view, they also can’t alter my truth, and that is real power.

-A.G.

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