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It was all supposed to be so much more beautiful than this
Hatred, suffering and alchemizing pain into beauty.
Expansion, Half Life sculpture by Paige Bradley
I've been inside of your golden locket
And I've been sleepin' in your jacket pocket
And now, I'm just a junk drawer dream - David Bielanko, Marah
It’s been hard to write lately and what I’m about to divulge feels nearly impossible to share. I’ve even debated the merits of continuing to write publicly at all. Sometimes the thoughts and experiences disclosed here ignite feelings of empowerment and other times I feel like an exposed nerve screeching banal bullshit into the abyss.
Maybe I’m afraid of judgment. Maybe it’s because the internet often feels like Times Square during tourist season with its gaudy billboard ads, flashing lights and street salespeople wading into the cacophonous ocean of humanity to lure them into dubious comedy joints, beautiful Broadway shows or insanely expensive pedicab rides. I am disinclined to add to the cacophony. Let me retreat down this dark street and into this dimly lit dive bar just off 7th avenue and I’ll catch you all after the madness.
The years I spent off the internet, two of which coincided with the pandemic, were quiet and contemplative. The essence of life felt revealed in a way not possible when the busyness of life kept everyone on autopilot. Before, when I wrote, it was quick and dirty. Purging my experiences, thoughts and feelings before any meaningful mental processing took place. It was rare for each post to take more than a few hours, a few days tops. Now, I mull a thing, pawing at it for days and weeks in much the same way my dog worries a stuffed animal into an explosion of white stuffing and torn fabric.
I have at least a dozen started and discarded posts kicking around in the drafts section of this site. I think about a thing so deeply and for so long before deciding to write about it that the thought, perspective, or opinion becomes amorphous. Shape-shifty. Or I can see all sides of the thing and second-guess myself into oblivion which makes me unable to form a concrete opinion. There are too many opinions and too much talking and not enough questions and listening going around these days, anyway.
Leaving the internet led to serenity and calmness I don’t think I’ve experienced as an adult. It was a beautiful, eye-opening time where I dropped the internet narrative and the public performance of me and began to really get to know myself. More importantly, I began to learn to love myself and feel compassion for myself and for my rollercoaster of emotions which led to an unexpected yet welcome increased understanding and compassion for those around me.
Paradoxically, the same time period has also been the most painful, and confusing of my life, due to a situation, the loss of an important relationship, that is not within my power to resolve. Just admitting that I can’t fix it is a huge step. For the longest time, I perceived that repairing this relationship was a thing I could do, I just needed to figure out the right way.
When I removed my ego from the equation I felt like I could clearly view the scenario. We were good people reacting, and in some cases overreacting, from trauma. We’ve all slipped into that fight mode where we're certain the other person is so wrong and we’re so right. Or we’ve experienced the righteous indignation that comes from feeling unjustly wronged or misunderstood and we allow that emotion to fuel our anger. Angry people can live in that space forever. I’m right! You’re wrong! A flat circle of humanity at its worst.
A couple years ago, in my effort to diffuse the anger, I let go of my narrative. I let go of all the I’m rights and they’re wrongs and tried to dig deeper. There is no right and wrong, it’s all perspective, I told myself. We just need to get together to share and validate each other’s perspectives. Maybe if I utterly humbled myself, apologized for any hurt I caused and really tried to not just understand, but honestly validate, the other person’s perspective of me and the scenario, we could work this thing out.
None of it worked. I made it worse, actually. My kindness was perceived as condescension, my apologies an affront and my genuine offers to work it out were dismissed. I was told they were a manipulation, an attempt to control the situation.
Maybe they were, I don’t know. I felt sincere. But what does that matter if I was perceived as the opposite? There is no universal reality. Only mine and theirs and yours and yours and yours.
Let the mind fuckery begin!
I was at a loss. I began to endlessly excavate the scenario with my long-suffering boyfriend, my friends, and my mom, trying to read meaning into the hatred, find the key, discover the answer, fully willing to make the appropriate apologies for my role in the relationship implosion. I emailed blanket apologies that went unanswered, and offered to meet for drinks to work it all out. I reeled from confusing interactions during which I was accused of malevolent behaviors that spun my head around and put me on the defensive, trying to explain myself and dragging out everything good I ever did as some kind of proof I was a good person. I began to believe I deserved the hateful perspective of me which holds no space for any redeeming qualities.
I experience the hatred as a relentless, angry buzz that accompanies me through my days. Sometimes an annoying bee buzzing around my head, other times a drill in the next room. Very often, though, it’s a city jackhammer on the sidewalk outside a first-floor bedroom at 8 am. I keep this raw, relentless hatred of me a secret from most people. It's embarrassing. Feels like my failure. Like I committed an atrocious act worthy of this kind of vicious contempt.
The anxiety, if charted via seismograph of my heartbeats, never falls below a 5.0 magnitude. It hunkers heavily on my chest like an invisible stone gargoyle perched on a building ledge and causes my entire body to squirm restlessly. So many sleepless nights. So much alcohol to douse the fiery angst.
I have been reeling for years. Years. Traumatized in mind and body. With each in-person encounter or email exchange my brain and body are activated into fight, flight or freeze response over and over and over again. I am always on heightened alert. My nervous system is jacked. I am snake-bit. There is a deadly cocktail of toxins rushing around my system and I am desperate for the antidote.
My emotions and perspective felt unreliable so I turned to science to explain what happened. The best I can figure is that the initial falling out led to a negativity bias which is the human tendency not only to register negative things more readily but also to dwell on these events. This bias toward the negative leads you to pay much more attention to the bad things that happen or to classify more things as bad. If you’re angry with someone your negative feelings toward them get stronger as you perceive everything about them as negative. It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. As the negative thoughts pile up they lead to negative experiences that create more negative thoughts etc…
All of this negativity activates the amygdala. The brain region associated with fear and aggression flares up. As Robert Sapolsky writes in Why Your Brain Hates Other People, “This visceral, emotional reaction can spark a long-term pattern of dislike when it’s validated by action: if you perceive that someone has hurt you, your fear of them becomes rational. Our negative feelings toward someone get stronger as bad experiences with them pile up, and these negative thoughts trigger the fight-or-flight response in our bodies.”
According to Headspace, stressors that trigger fight-or-flight aren’t just those that threaten death because our body can’t tell the difference between an actual stressor like someone pointing a gun at you and a perceived stressor like dealing with someone you hate.
Your fearful associations with disliking the person trigger your own need to protect yourself. Over time, this response puts stress on our bodies, conditioning us to be more skeptical of a person’s actions than we would be if we felt neutral about them. “In the mind, the neural connections become stronger and cause us to dwell more on the negative aspects of that person,” says AJ Marsden, assistant professor of Psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. “Even if they were to do something positive, we’d pay more attention to the negative because that’s what we’ve trained our brain to do.” This explains why we have a seemingly endless list of negative facts about people we dislike, even if our rational brain would tell us there has to be something redeeming about them. This heightened arousal of our fearful instincts causes us to dread future interactions with people we dislike. In turn, this conditions us into even further dislike of that person, which just validates our negative feelings. In this way, our distaste for another person becomes like a snake eating its tail: we dislike them because they make us feel bad, and we feel bad because we dislike them.
Eventually, after mental exhaustion and physical illness, I realized that no action was the best course of action. Time heals all wounds, right? Maybe I could wield some form of control by taking no action and letting time work its cliched magic. Yet, in this case, time seemed to exacerbate the ill will. Without regular face-to-face interaction, we tend to dehumanize those we hate. Create non-existent narratives to justify the hatred we feel.
It doesn’t have to be this way, I tell myself of the lost relationship. It’s so much harder to live with this kind of anger and hatred. Anger and hatred spread through the body like sepsis painting veins flame-red.
It was all supposed to be so much more beautiful than this.
It is uncomfortable and, frankly, sometimes debilitating to be so rejected and outright hated. Especially for someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) who experiences heightened rejection sensitivity (RS). People with RS may experience an overwhelming emotional response to real or perceived rejection, criticism, judgment, get very angry, or have an emotional outburst when they feel like someone has hurt or rejected them. (Check!) They may lash out in anger, dwell on negative thoughts, feel hopeless, think they’re a failure, or feel their self-esteem plummet. (Check!) Their moods may drop so rapidly and dramatically, it can feel like major depression. (Check!)
While a BPD diagnosis has been amazingly helpful in negotiating the landmine-riddled emotional landscape of my life and the negative role I play or have played in my relationships, it can also be incredibly disorienting. I gaslight myself, question if I somehow deserve this hatred even though I also know I did all that I could to repair the situation.
I feel dehumanized. Unhuman. I have been thrown away. Aside from me and my feelings, the ripple effect of all the hatred and anger, the collateral damage, is difficult to quantify. The fallout from the hatred has been nuclear in my life and the lives of everyone around me and that has led to moments of rage so intense they made me ashamed and a responding hatred so fiery I couldn’t breathe.
But in the depths of hateful despair, I realized you really have to work at active, relentless hatred. If left to its own devices, hatred naturally dissipates and you end up seeing the humanity in the other person. This tells me that the stone-cold truth of this entire nightmare is that the hater is in far more pain than the hated.
This is where compassion comes in. Because the truth of it is simply this: I love the hater and I always will. Or maybe I just love the person I used to know or my idea of who this person was? I don’t know them anymore.
My therapist tells me I need to fully mourn the loss like a death. I agree. I can’t talk to my therapist about the scenario without my throat closing up and my chest aching until the sobs break free, scraping out of my throat in spite of my determination not to cry. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the heartbreak of this particular loss. Its reverberations are too profound for too many people. But I am learning to incorporate the heartbreak into who I am becoming.
When the desperate wait for warm temperatures and blue skies coincided with war in Ukraine I think exhaustion and grief reared their twin fucking heads and gored then trampled me like an unlucky participant in the running of the bulls. I feel like I’ve fallen into an icy river wearing winter clothes. My sadness weighs me down, is nearly drowning me. But maybe, even just writing this means I’m finally swimming for air and sun and trying to find a way to transform all the goddamn confusion and pain of the past three years into growth.
About the process of alchemizing pain into beauty, psychologist Robin Fox (hat tip for leading me to the Expansion sculpture at the top of the post) said that “emotional pain, undealt with, often manifests in dysregulation and anger. It ain’t easy to face ourselves. But the alternative is to continue to stoke division and hatred within ourselves as well as with other humans. One must be brave to begin the journey of recognizing the pain and rage and fear within. Then we can begin to heal.”
That’s the thing about pain, isn’t it? It sucks to deal with but even in the thick of it, things are happening on a cellular level, from our hearts to our brains, that transform pain into progress. Going through the hard stuff causes you to level up in ways you never could if you hadn’t suffered.
I can see now that my desperate need for that specific relationship was a kind of flailing for approval and my need for approval feels like an affliction, a hostile virus ravaging my body, a disease eating away at my heart and mind. But the fever is waning, my mind is clearing, the grip on my self-esteem loosening. Paradoxically, although I am a compulsive controller as a result of a chaotic childhood, relaxing into the helplessness and giving up control over everything except my own response ended up being the most helpful.
The peace I was looking for is not in changing anyone’s mind about me. It is in accepting what is and moving on. Someone else’s relentless, unexamined hatred is their problem. Not mine. And maybe that right there is the single most important lesson I have earned and learned here.
I saw this sculpture and it zinged my soul with recognition. I read the story of how Paige Bradley created it and it was perfect:
“So, literally, I took a perfectly good wax sculpture – a piece I had sculpted with precision over several months – an image of a woman meditating in the lotus position, and just dropped it on the floor. I destroyed what I made. I was letting it all go. It was scary. It shattered into so many pieces. My first feeling was, ‘What have I done!?!' Then, I trusted it would all come together like I envisioned. We cast all the pieces in bronze and assembled the pieces so they floated apart from one another. Then I brought in a lighting specialist and we built a crazy lighting system to make it glow from within. It turned out even better than I thought.”
It’s scary but it is in the broken that we can finally let go so we can assemble the pieces of us anew, discover the glow and turn out even better than we thought.
Then Father Time, won't you do your best
To mend a broken heart
The loosened ends of a party night
When your story bends
And your phantom eyes tell lies
To my old friends - David Bielanko, Marah
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On her podcast, We Can Do Hard Things Glennon Doyle interviews Susan Cain who says sadness is a superpower.