I’m not the kind of person who just “gets over” stuff. For as long as I can remember, I hold onto things (both good and bad) like a hoarder, long ruminating over them after the incident has passed. I’m not exactly sure why, but it is one of the core manifestations of my personality.
Like a lot of kids, I had a rough time in school. I was often singled out for classroom bullying. An awkward child who lacked a lot of social skills, money and friends, I was an easy target. When we’re young, I think kids are a lot like sharks, smelling blood in the water and swarming onto their prey with ruthless and visceral attacks.
Adults would not intervene, not my parents, not my teachers, nor would the guidance counselors or even principal when I went to them. It became obvious that the only person who understood the severity of my pain and the injustice of it was me. I was too young and powerless to do much of anything about it.
I had no choice but to absorb every hateful thing that was said to me. I had no outlet to process it, no sympathetic ear, no validation, and instead each word would be stored in the seemingly endless database of my young mind. The loop is always playing itself in my mind, mostly it can be ignored, but sometimes it’s so loud that I can’t do anything to drown it out. It sounds strange now, but even at 31 the memory of the mean girls at the assigned lunch table who singled me out because she didn’t like my penny loafers can still reduce me to a puddle of self-esteem-less waste.
What was strange, was that as I went through school, hitting puberty and all that lovely nonsense, some people changed their mind about me. It became very difficult to reconcile the past mistreatment against the new-found interest, and as you would expect, I was wary of it.
It worked out for some people, but others tipped their hand soon enough and exposed that they were indeed the same cruel child they always were. In those moments, I thought my unwavering database of offenses was a bit of an asset, in that “lest we forget” kind of way. It protected me from people who’d hurt me before and were, based on previous history, likely to do it again.
After I left school, I floundered with making new friends, certain that I would still be tainted from the invisible mark that somehow showed others that I was not worthy. It wasn’t long until my new college friends began to criticize me for my poor relationship decisions. (At the time, I was in a tremendously abusive relationship, where I was totally enmeshed, and admittedly doing some really stupid things.)
The ongoing criticism, which must have started out as a genuine concern for my well-being, turned ugly fast as I was in too deep and resistant to any kind of negativity about it. It culminated with several ambush confrontations, sometimes with single individuals, but the worst being a group of about five girls who took turns tag-team style screaming at me in the public quad in front of our dorm.
I wish I could say I didn’t know why I simply stood there, absorbing their barrage of hateful vitriol, but I do. It was the only skill set I had for coping with bullies: just take it. Coupled with my incredibly low self esteem and the inability to stand up for myself, it never occurred to me that I could just walk away from it. Things go much worse after that, but that’s a story for another day.
When I ended the bad relationship, which was long overdue, the damage was already done at school. Huge sections of the student body, people who didn’t even know me, suddenly hated me and weren’t shy in letting me know that. It was just like middle school all over again. To this day, I still don’t know how I got through it without mentally breaking down or attempting suicide. I did engage in some very self destructive behaviors, and considering that, I’m lucky to be alive.
In an attempt to grow a back bone, though not really understanding how to take care of myself or build positive regard for myself, I tried to establish boundaries for those who would mistreat me moving forward. What ended up developing could be likened to an allergy to certain things. For example, the occasional grievance could be excused, but ongoing demonstrated exposure to the same behavior would lead me to become hypersensitive to it to the point where it (or more often the person) could no longer be tolerated.
I’ve described this in therapy as reaching a saturation level for bullshit, after which no more can be absorbed and I need to get out of the situation. Typically, the threshold is incredibly high, and people have to abuse my good nature and trust so much before I’ll begin to pull back. However, as I begin to get better at spotting trends, the tolerance level becomes lower and lower.
At this point, the tolerance level has become obvious to those around me. I have been called out for things like, “not letting people love me” or my inability to let something go. I feel like those statements, while they are usually delivered by someone who seems to care very much about me, are missing the point. Having been on the receiving end of so much so-called “love,” affections that came in the form of abusive relationships, manipulative and one-sided friendships, and the like, those individuals fail to see the merit of being wary.
But it is true, I do close myself off from people who would otherwise “love” me. Often they do not understand the underlying reasons for it, but almost always not without explanation and a fair amount of slack. I try to have as much empathy for those who are cut off, because it is not the desired end result by any means. What I do not ever receive in return from anyone who has been cut out of my life is that same amount of empathy in return. In truth, those who are removed from my life demonstrate a stark lack of empathy or apathy for my perspective, boundaries and feelings.
To an outsider, my behaviors may be more akin to those of a feral animal: cautious, fearful, unwilling to trust, wary of touch and closeness, and easily frightened off when spooked or confronted. I do often feel like I am feral sometimes, at least when it comes to interpersonal relationships. I am working on it, but at this point, it is difficult to think that I’ll ever totally overcome it. Some toys are forever broken, and all the love in the world won’t make them right again. The best I can hope for is to work around the scars and missing limbs of the past abuses and isolation of my own undoing in the hope I can limp towards normalcy.