I had a situation earlier in the week where a friend, Bob, didn’t answer his phone. Bob sent me a message shortly after saying that he’d call back, and he didn’t. If recovery is about honesty, then I honestly felt as though his behaviour was a reflection of who I am; that I’m a bad person who is not worthy. I felt as though I was not OK, and that things were not going to be OK either.
It was tough, and it was my codependency at its worst. The negativity kicked in, as well as the self-sabotaging thoughts. I didn’t want to make calls to any of my friends and talk about how it made me feel, just in case they didn’t pick up either. Or maybe they’d tell me to get over it, and invalidate my feelings? Or, or! Or maybe they’d tell me what a great bloke my friend is, so how could I be angry with him?
Did I mention that? I felt angry with Bob, too. How dare he. I basically went in to a sort of self-defense shutdown in my head. It was as though the act of him not picking up was an affirmation of all the negative shit I’d layered myself with over the years. You see! I told you there was something inherently bad and unworthy about you! You’re a horrible person, and you should be ashamed of yourself!
I did feel ashamed of myself. And I thought about how I could manipulate the situation in to him feeling bad about his actions. This is the unmanageability that accompanies complex PTSD. A simple situation can have a layered and complex trickle effect on the afflicted. It ain’t pretty. In fact, it’s pretty heavy shit, especially when all that really happened was a friend didn’t return my call.
This is the meat of my recovery, this stuff. It’s the hardest stuff to get over, the hardest stuff to process, and it’s the most resistant part of me to the prospect of change. I’ve lost many friends because of this inner feeling of betrayal. Why? Because it cuts to the core of where it all started. I didn’t have a family life that was peachy. There was domestic violence, lots of shouting, and a constant sense of danger. To be sure though, I’m learning not to blame my parents. In all likelihood, the environment they created for me was one that they, too, endured.
Which is not to say that I hold this compassion for my parents constantly (it’s a real work in progress), but I can see from a logical point of view that the bony finger of blame could easily be pointed further afar than solely at their lackluster performance.
But that is a whole other kettle of fish. To bring it back to me, and to get to the point, I was projecting on to Bob. Because he’s older than me, and because he has been particularly helpful and patient in my recovery, I assumed that he would naturally fill the role that my father didn’t, and that he would be there for me all the time. When he didn’t return my call, I responded as though my father had intentionally left me in a shopping mall and never returned (that never happened). Totally reasonable, huh? Cough.
But we’re talking here about my unmet needs from way back when. What one or both parents did not provide to me as a child, I seek it out in others as an adult, and I’ve noticed that I do it a lot. Maybe they’ll protect me from bad things happening to me again, I think to myself on some deep, barely noticeable level of consciousness. I’ve held these expectations of people all my life. Who will show me the love and affection I didn’t get then? It’s a belief system that slipped beneath virtually all my radars of self-awareness and self-improvement, until now.
I haven’t wanted to have a look at it because, well, it’s easier to blame someone else for their perceivably bad behaviour than to look at my own painful beliefs that have kept me stuck all these years. This doesn’t make me lazy, it makes me human. The brain naturally seeks to simplify the complex world and the complex people within it. It’s called heuristics, and I’ve got my share of shitty ones.
The brain is like an onion (oh no! Another shitty onion metaphor! Sorry). It develops in layers as we grow. The emotional brain is one of the first layers to develop, and when it experiences trauma, it gets stuck. Simple as that. I’m stuck in this crucial area of my emotional development. And so when my friend forgot to call me back, the stuck part of my brain panicked like it always does, and I felt as though my survival was on the line. I went to what I’ve known to be true when I felt these feelings in the past: Abandonment, rejection, fear. I was brought back to the emotional battlefield of my childhood, where my needs weren’t adequately met.
As usual, I am reminded by my friends in recovery to stick with it, stay present. Which I did this week, albeit with great difficulty. I focused on my body, and the feelings that twisted and turned my stomach and that pounded furiously at my chest. By feeling them, rather than running with the racing thoughts, I released them one optimistic step at a time. What’s released cannot remain stuck, right?
I’ve since spoken to Bob about my reaction. He was thankfully very understanding, which makes me a lucky person. I’m in a wonderful place in my recovery where I can reflect on what triggers me without (necessarily) running away or making decisions that in the past would have damaged me. I can talk about it with friends who know the struggle, and I can let it go, and I’m really grateful for that.