Someone was rude to me in a work meeting last week and I called him on it. It wasn’t a big drama. He cast a condescending aspersion, I calmly corrected it and requested he not do that again, he muttered an apology, and the meeting moved on.
Except the me part of the meeting. As the tide of the moment receded, I sat there a little stunned. Who just said that? I wondered. Did I?
I learned young that defending myself out loud led to pain. My young parents didn’t know what to make of me, their hyper-attuned, hyper-verbal starter kid. Even my first word was two words: pretty flowers. On car trips they’d pay me not to talk, and I don’t blame them a bit. What I do take issue with: the sweeping judgments on my character that flew so freely in our house. They didn’t attack over things I’d done. They attacked for how I was. Too anxious, too sad, too scared, too ungrateful.
Look, I’m under no illusions that raising a scapegoat was fun. But in my defense, I only ever asked to be raised as a child. I did not request special assignment as the Locus of Discontent. It pissed me off. I knew I was better than the words they used to describe me, and because I was both hyper-verbal and too young to see around corners, I argued back. It never worked out well for me–at all–at all–but I kept pressing my own bullheaded little case because I knew. I was eight years old and I knew I deserved to be seen more clearly.
And then I stopped. I just got too fucking tired to fight with angry, scary adults all the goddamn time. Or if I occasionally couldn’t resist, it was in the spirit of a soldier who knows she’s about to die in battle and says, you know what, fine. Heedless and pre-numbed.
I lived. No one’s hurt me in those ways in decades. I rarely even jump at sudden movements anymore. And as part of my adult toolkit I even learned how to pretend to have a productive conflict with another human being. I read all the books about the I statements and not globalizing and empathy and whatnot. In marriage and especially in sobriety, I’ve even learned how to sort of back my way into an actual grownup argument, with real feelings and everything.
But there’s an overload switch in my brain and sometimes it flips. It is especially flip-prone when someone is mad at me, and “mad” can mean anything from momentarily annoyed to seriously disappointed to fuck-her-and-the-horse-she-rode-in-on. And because I now have people in my life who actually see me, sometimes “mad” just means “I know there is so much light and humor and wisdom inside you, Kristi, and I guess I was just wondering why the flying fuck you aren’t showing any of it to me right now. Thoughts?”
That’s a good kind of mad. But my switch flips and I go mute. Or close enough to mute for the girl whose first word was two. I can’t talk because I can’t think. And I can’t think because I am measurably stupider in this state. The part of my brain with the words and nuances and opinions about politics and novelists and jeans and chicken has been shoved aside by the part that’s just looking to get me off the battlefield before I get humiliated or hit or locked in my room.
It’s not fun, right? It’s not rewarding to try to hash something out with a normally chatty and open woman who is suddenly staring glassy-eyed just to the left of you. It’s not fair when you express your own difficult emotions as clearly and kindly as you can, only to watch this chick who is famously good with words go full-on aphasic and treat you like you might be packing and trigger-happy.
But what can I say, except that sometimes I’m not there? I leave without wanting to. The kid I was is trying to save me. I don’t need her to but she doesn’t care. Maybe she’s still trying to prove herself. Maybe this is how she gives shape and meaning to all her pain (because otherwise, what the fuck was it for?). She’s bullheaded, after all. And surprisingly forceful.
Until a few years ago I didn’t know what was happening. Or I knew–I’m not disassociating, not truly gone, just mute and embarrassed. But I hadn’t connected the dots. I was 44, sober for just over a year, when I realized I wasn’t just a stonewaller or a bad fighter; I was scared of real harm. Finally I learned to, as they say, use my words. I’m overwhelmed right now and having trouble processing. Or Can we just sit for a minute while I catch up? Or to anyone close enough to know the shorthand: just I’m not here right now. I’m sorry. I’m just not here.
I messed up a man’s life this year, and he messed mine up too. But we are decent and earnest and thoughtful people, the kind of people who generally take care not to wreck stuff. We set out with our separate checklists of repairs, and at the same time tried to look after our originating friendship, which had been the kind that you just don’t find outside of college, or maybe your 20s. Some of my repairs turned out to be more like renovations, but not the catastrophic kind, more like adding some windows than gutting the kitchen. (Others were–are–slow, expensive, and grueling. But I should have seen them coming from a hundred miles away and instead I marched right into them. I don’t get to complain.)
I didn’t know the specifics of his repairs, because we’d agreed not to share details with each other. But based on not much more than hope and naiveté, I decided that the trouble I’d catalyzed in his life had probably been short-lived and shallow–my disruptive presence a blip–and that the tentative new back-to-friends reality between us would solidify. Did I want to be that easily forgotten? God, no. Especially not by him. It hurt to even contemplate. But if it would help to set his world back on its axis, well, who was I to resist the sacrifice.
So we bumbled along, trying to reset our friendship in a start-and-stop way. And then one day I said in passing Looking forward to our coffee tomorrow! and he said Oh yeah! Actually, do you have a second to talk? Right now? Somewhere private? And five minutes later we were leaning against the granite facade of an apartment building while he explained that actually, well, no. No coffees, no conversations, no quick walks around the block to catch some sun. Not for now, anyway. Not when he still had so much left to resolve.
Even as I listened my switch was starting to flip. The ambush-like timing had primed it and the actual words did the rest.
What he said: I need more time to process everything and I can’t do it while I’m still spending time with you. And It’s nothing you’ve done. And I need to take responsibility for my own life.
What I heard: My life was great until you came along. I don’t want you anywhere near me and I wish we’d never met.
He finished explaining himself and waited for me to respond, because he didn’t know Elvis had left the building. I turned my face toward the granite wall and just kind of…watched it while I tried to think of how to defend myself against the things he had not actually said. He patiently watched me watch the wall, which was really very nice of him. And then finally I came up with some words:
I’m just sort of looking at this granite.
Yeah. That’s how I rose to the occasion. What I meant: I’m not here. I’m sorry. I’m working so hard to stay but sometimes the kid won’t let me. I’m sorry. I’m just not here.
What he heard: Granite.
It wasn’t long after that someone was rude to me in a meeting and I called him on it. It wasn’t a huge drama. I just did it and then sat there stunned. Who just said that? You did, I thought. Cleanly and clearly. That was you.
It’s not that the kid’s gone, but she slacks off more these days. Maybe her threat meter is more finely tuned. Maybe she’s just tired of defending me, the same way she got tired of defending herself. Or she shows up only when she knows I’m truly vulnerable (GraniteGate) and lets me handle lower-risk situations (meeting dude).
And even during GraniteGate, I broke through eventually. I rallied, sort of. By which I mean I was ineloquent and defensive and likely a general pain in the ass, but I was there, doing what I could, and she let me stay. And when our talk ended and he said Do you want to walk around the block once before we go back?, she just watched quietly while I said–cleanly and clearly–Yes. But I think I want to do it alone.