Saturday, January 5, 2013

Filling in spaces

Last night I tagged along with my housemate to a volunteer orientation held by the Fairfax County Office for Women/Domestic and Sexual Violence Services. I wasn't sure what to expect; my housemate, Lisa, had mentioned to my boyfriend and me a few weeks ago that she was going to the group's next sign-up meeting, and said to me, "Do you want to go?" I said yes. At the time it was partly a knee-jerk polite response -- like, what kind of jerk, when asked to volunteer to help victims of domestic and sexual violence, would say "no"? And I'm one of those people who's always saying, "I'd love to volunteer! Hmm, I need to think about what would be the most urgent or worthy cause, or what would be the best fit for me..." and then I drag my feet and procrastinate and swear I'll do it soon, maybe it'll be my New Year's resolution, on and on, until -- just like many things in my life -- it never happens. 

I had a recurring volunteer gig once -- and just like this time, the opportunity found me, not the other way around. This was back when I was a newspaper reporter in Lynchburg, Virginia. I had recently been switched off a year-long, pay-my-dues stint as the paper's "night cops" reporter -- in this role I came in around 3 p.m., sat listening to two walkie-talkie-looking police scanners that monitored five or so different frequencies (each frequency carried communications between local 911 call/dispatch centers and that county or city's police and fire/EMS departments), "on call" like a firefighter waiting for all hell to break loose so I could quickly MapQuest it (this was in the time before everyone had GPS devices in their cars), drive to the scene, and cover the story. In an act of mercy, because the night-cops beat is a stressful and aging one, my editors had moved me to a more general-assignment beat focusing on two counties in the paper's coverage area. 

There was some event or reason that led me to visit the Old Dominion Job Corps Center, located in one of my counties, Amherst. In a nutshell, Job Corps centers provide free "vocational training" (specific job-related training) and GED preparation for students who've dropped out of high school. I interviewed administrators and students, and hit it off with an administrator who mentioned that they had a need for people to help students get ready for the English portion of their GED exams. It was right up my alley, so I agreed to drive over on some evenings during the week (I forget what my exact schedule was) and look over students' writing samples with them. It was a good thing to do -- one of those win-win deals in which I knew I was offering something genuinely helpful to the students, and in turn I felt that I had a little bit of value as a person and in the community that I lived and worked in. 

I only stopped doing that because I moved back up to NoVA, for a better-paying and more prestigious editing job for a national trade association in Old Town, Alexandria. I always meant to find a similar gig, and even contacted the coordinator of a literacy group (I was going to help adults read and write) in Herndon, the last place I lived before my boyfriend bought the townhouse in Springfield. Due to my very specific skill set (OK, not really a set -- just: writing), I always figured I could best be put to use in this world helping people learn to read, or write, or pass English tests, or process their experiences through creative writing, or something like that. This type of volunteering doesn't really fall into the most dire or urgent category -- but communicating with written words is something I understand, something I know how to do well, and it's a tool that can immensely improve a person's life and help them feel more fulfilled.

But when Lisa said, "Do you want to go?" and I said yes, something about doing this type of volunteering felt right. This is a more urgent kind of need than the need to use words well and feel creatively fulfilled. At the registration meeting last night, a volunteer coordinator handed the group of about 20 female volunteers a chart showing all the different types of roles the group has a need for, plus the number of training hours required for each one (40 hours for most of the positions I would most want to fill). I checked off the boxes for "hotline" call support (calls are directed to your cell phone; you sign on for a shift, and during that shift you just have to be available and have access to a private place to talk, such as your home); in-person support for victims who have just experienced sexual violence and are undergoing a medical evaluation; and also in-person support for victims who are going to court for cases related to domestic or sexual violence. 

There were tons of other tasks available -- everything from admin support for the office to handing out flyers letting county residents know about available programs -- but I checked the boxes for the most in-person or on-the-phone, immediate emotional and practical support that a volunteer can offer for victims. (Actually, I noticed last night that the volunteer coordinator didn't use the word "victim;" she referred to callers and others who request the office's services as "clients," and the website refers to them as "survivors." I'll start doing that, too.) I wanted to sign on for the "couples" services, too, because I would very much like to help the abusers get better, but right now the office isn't offering those services.

We had to fill out a short, back-and-front, bright turquoise "application" last night, which included the question: "What special skills or knowledge do you have to offer in these roles?" Lisa filled her form out quickly, and I tried to hurry and get mine filled out quickly, too, because neither of us had eaten dinner yet and we could leave once we turned the applications in. I paused at this question, then went on and filled out all the rest of the form and had to come back to it. And when I did, I found myself writing more than the coordinators were probably looking for. 

What special skills or knowledge do I have, anyway? What makes me think I could offer support, help, or comfort to someone who has just undergone something horrific, humiliating, devastating, life-changing, genuinely traumatic... something I have never even come close to dealing with?  

At first, trying to rush along and provide pragmatic answers, I thought of superficial things, such as how I was almost a psychology major in college. I don't know why I thought for even a second that this might be a good thing to mention in that space on the form. I guess it's more because of why I was almost a psychology major in college. Because I've been told, and I like to think, that I'm a caring, empathetic, compassionate person and "a good listener." Because I like people, I care about them, I'm kind to strangers, I will sit down on the street next to a homeless person and hang out with him for half an hour instead of just ignoring him or handing him a dollar through my just-rolled-down-a-crack window at a long red light. Because I once drove a homeless woman near my old Fairfax apartment to not one but two shelters in the middle of the night; she had an address, I took her there, it was full or open only to men, I forget which, and we had to find her another one nearby, and I seriously considered just letting her stay with me. OK, so maybe it would be most fitting for me to volunteer to somehow help homeless people, given my history of doing exactly that without my even having the "volunteer" stamp branded on me.

Still -- so people tell me I'm nice. So what? Is that enough? I'm telling myself right now that it'll be OK, that this 40-hour training (on three Saturdays in February) will somehow prepare me for helping these people who have had to live through these terrible things. Is that presumptuous, or audacious, for me to think that I can "do something for" them? Is it condescending to presume that I might have some knowledge or wisdom to bestow upon them -- when I haven't gone through what happened to them, let alone overcome it, heal from it? 

On the form, in the space after this question, I found myself writing: "I have a small degree of personal experience with physical, verbal, and emotional abuse." 

I do, but it really is a small amount, and sometimes I feel like it's so minor and so "in the past" that it's downright insulting to even bring it up -- that it somehow drags down the whole label of "physical, verbal, and emotional abuse" for me to put my experiences in that category. I figure when the coordinator calls me up for my "very informal" phone interview sometime soon, I'll bring this up, and she'll say something like "Don't minimize your experiences" or "No abuse is 'not that big a deal.' " As if, in downplaying my experiences, I've committed some egregious social and moral faux pas.

You can judge for yourself -- here's what's happened to me: 

From the time I was 18 until just before I turned 21, I dated and was eventually engaged to a guy named Greg. I'd never really been in a proper relationship before. We met on AOL, when he liked my profile and we began chatting via IM. My mom and dad got married when they were 22 and 24, respectively, so when Greg proposed to me when I was 20 and he was 22, I figured -- yeah, I guess so. I mean, we'd been dating a couple of years, we were finishing up with college, we were at what seemed like the getting-married age. And more to the point, for me -- I had nothing else going on. No other candidates, one way or the other -- no one else was interested in me, and I wasn't seriously interested in anyone else. The night he proposed to me, I was really sick with some flu-like thing; I was lying in his bed at his parents' house, wearing my bulky winter coat over my clothes. We had just gone to Burger King for dinner to go. I don't even remember what he said or how he did it; I mostly remember the flu and having my coat on and Burger King. And calling my parents on someone's cell phone afterward, and this tone in my parents' voices, a satisfied sort of check-mark sense of "OK, the oldest of our three kids is well on her way down the right path, graduating from college and getting married. One down, two more to go." 

My point in sharing all of this is to tell you that the whole relationship was from my end dismally perfunctory. I wasn't madly in love with him; I loved him, or liked him well enough. But mostly I just felt grateful that someone wanted me. 

I feel as if this is a key point to bring up here: I was grateful to him for wanting me.

I can't remember whether the handful of incidents started before or after we were engaged, but I'm pretty sure they were mostly clustered at the end. I wasn't a perfect fiancée; soon after I met Greg's longtime best friend, Tim, I developed an attraction to him that at first manifested in a chaste but intense e-mail correspondence and finally in my breaking up with Greg to be with Tim, whom I wound up having a 10-year relationship with. I'm sure Greg sensed this as it was happening. On many Saturdays, the three of us would hang out, Tim driving us all around in his car, going to bookstores and comic shops and out to dinner. Greg probably noticed that I got way more fixed up (wearing new clothes; painting my nails, which is something I almost never do) for these "friend dates." Still, at this time I wasn't cheating on Greg; I really wasn't doing anything wrong.

This is key, too -- Greg felt threatened. He felt he was going to lose me; he felt I was doing something bad, for which I needed to be punished. He felt that I needed to be "kept in line." 

I forget which of these times happened first. There was one crazy night when Tim, who has manic depression, stopped by Greg's parents' house (he knew Greg and I were both there for the weekend) feeling suicidal and said he just needed to talk to friends. I realize, in retrospect, that what he really felt he needed was to see me. I recall that I went out to him, to talk with him, because I couldn't then and can't now fathom doing otherwise. I remember that Greg did not do that, nor did anyone else in the house (neither of Greg's parents, nor his older brother who was also ostensibly Tim's friend). Greg was mad that I'd gone out to talk to Tim, pouty and jealous. Greg stepped out of the house just enough to tell me to come back inside. 

Greg and I had an argument near the door. I didn't think I'd done anything wrong -- Tim came over depressed, I went out to talk to him, that was it. But Greg and his parents seemed to think I'd gone out there to flirt or fuck him or something, as if my going out to talk with Tim was somehow a slutty thing to do. I was so angry that I just needed to get away from Greg for a while, apoplectic, just wanted to take a walk alone and be away from him. I told him -- nicely; even when I'm angry I'm unable to not be polite -- "I'm sorry, but I can't talk to you right now." I spun around, turned from him, started to walk off at a fairly rapid clip. He grabbed my arm, was maybe just trying to stop me but the momentum I already had going combined with his grabbing my arm and somehow I sort of got thrown to the ground. I fell on my ankle at a painful angle. I cried out instinctively, not to be whiny but because it genuinely hurt. Greg looked scared and said, "I didn't just push you." I'm willing to believe that he wasn't trying to hurt me, but in my Rules for Not Being an Asshole, you don't grab another adult in anger ever, you don't physically try to prevent another adult from leaving a heated argument ever

I don't "count" this incident as physical abuse -- but I saw it as a potential prelude or indication of lines that Greg might be willing to cross. It seems like before a thing happens, there are usually signs. 

This one was worse: In our college town, Blacksburg, there was a hip movie theater downtown that played lots of independent and foreign movies you couldn't find playing elsewhere. For Greg and me, movies were our thing, some precious little common ground we had between us. There at the college we both attended, I had taken some Film 101 class whose "lab" component was watching a particular film as a class one night a week. I regularly snuck Greg into these movies as free little dates. This era was when both of us developed a taste for truly good movies, and we often went out for ice cream afterwards and had stimulating discussions about what we'd just seen. Greg was a computer-science major and politics nerd; I loved our film connection because it was the only arty thing he got into at all. After we broke up, those post-movie discussions were what I missed the most.

One night at the movie theater, Greg and I had taken our seats near the front for a showing of "Gods and Monsters." A few minutes before the lights were dimmed, I happened to look behind me and see my friend Liz taking a seat with some friends a few rows back. Greg had long vociferously disapproved of my friendship with Liz -- she was politically active on campus and liberal, an environmentalist, a vegan, the polar opposite of my conservative, social-Darwinist fiancé who disliked animals and proudly ordered huge hamburgers when dining among my vegetarian friends. One time Greg was around when Liz mentioned having tried marijuana once -- after that, Greg actively discouraged me from hanging out with "someone who breaks the law." I saw Liz back there, was happy to see her (I've known her since high school, when she was one of my two best friends), so I enthusiastically waved. That's all. I didn't get up to go sit with her. I didn't beckon for her and her friends to come sit with us. I didn't go back and light up a doobie with her. I just waved. 

As the lights went down, as punishment for waving to my "law-breaking" friend, Greg reached over and squeezed my arm hard, and hissed: "That's it -- we're never coming here again."

In the moments after he said this, as the production-company logos and previews flashed on the screen, I wondered what I should do. I didn't storm out. I didn't argue with him right then and there, telling him that he was out-of-his-mind irrational, although that's what I was thinking. I sure as hell didn't apologize. I thought, "I wanted to see this movie. I am going to watch this movie. I am not going to let him spoil it for me. We can have a talk afterward. But I am not going to let him ruin this movie." And I watched the movie, and it was a good movie. 

Later, walking back to our dorms, I calmly told him that his reaction was not at all appropriate. He said, in a wounded and petulant tone, "So you're saying I'm weird?" "No, Greg -- I'm not saying that you're weird, but that was an irrational reaction in that situation." I was so calm, so patient, so trying not to hurt his feelings. I probably should have told him off, but that's just not how I'm wired.

Another
time we were sitting on his bed in his parents' house, and we'd just had some sort of argument about who knows what, and he suddenly grabbed me by my upper arms. It was a downright eerie moment -- he seemed to be internally talking himself down. He admitted to being scared -- "I almost pushed you back on the bed just now." He almost did but he stopped himself. I have no clue whether things with Greg would have eventually escalated, or if they would have continued being what I felt was just on the borderline of "countable" incidents, or if that would have been it. I broke up with him a few months after our engagement (before my family ever got around to putting announcements in each of our local papers), and the "Let's stay friends" didn't work out, of course, because I had jumped directly into a relationship with Tim.

Tim never physically lashed out at me in anger, not even once. He despised people (especially men) who did that, would go on about how "a real man" would never hit a woman, not even in self-defense unless his life were at stake. And yet, when I looked down at the form asking me what knowledge I felt I had to offer in a role with this group -- the relationship with Tim was what I thought of first. 

I feel like this is an unpopular or politically incorrect thing to even acknowledge, but it seems as if -- in the popular imagination, at least -- there's an abuse spectrum. There's the bona fide, no-gray-area-about-it, black-eye/broken-bones, lands-you-in-the-hospital kind of abuse. Then there's the invisible kind, this "emotional" and "verbal" abuse, the kind they talk about on talk shows but that many people seem to secretly judge as not being quite hard-core enough to register as abuse. It seems as if there's this sense of, "Oh, your boyfriend yelled at you? How sad. This other woman is in a full-body cast and covered with cigarette burns. She was hit so hard she lost some of her memory and might never see again. And you tell me what happened to you was 'abuse'? That's cute." 

But it's something when you're crying in a corner and your boyfriend is in the middle of a manic-depressive episode and his meds aren't quite right so he's telling you about the lusty thoughts he had because he saw your sister's undergarments on the bathroom floor and he utters, because your sister is a model and he knows you're sensitive about your appearance: "Maybe I want to be with a pretty girl."

I guess that's not abuse. I guess it's just him being mean, or in Tim's case it's him not being himself due to errant chemicals or faulty medications messing up his brain. 

It counts as something when he asks you if you ever felt love or physical attraction for your ex-fiancé, and you truthfully but tactfully tell him that yes, of course you did, you're a human being and you were engaged to the guy -- so he yells at you (while driving) that you are a "fucking slut," and he pulls the car over in disgust and runs through a dark field tearing at the flesh of his own arm with his fingernails, and you know he always tears so deep that he draws blood. And so you get out and run after him, to talk him down, to bring him back, to shepherd him back into the car... and you encounter two concerned passersby who just happen to be male, and who worry that you guys are not OK... and you lie and tell them everything's alright, and when you finally get to your boyfriend out there in the field beneath the black night sky he says, "I'm surprised you didn't try to fuck them." 

I don't know if that's abuse or not, but I know that it's devastating to hear these things from the person you love, who is supposed to love you back, who is supposed to be your soul mate, who you hope will one day be your husband, will one day be the father of your children.

So I know what that's like. I know what it's like to just feel grateful that someone wants you. I know what it's like to know that your significant other will turn his anger on you when he feels threatened. I know what it's like to feel utterly alone, because the person who's supposed to love and protect and comfort you is the very person who hurt you -- I know what it's like to love and fear someone at the same time.

And here is the darkest part of all, the part I bet you didn't see coming.

Tim never once lashed out at me in anger, but I lashed out at him twice.

I tell myself it was two close-together incidents out of an entire decade-long relationship, a relationship that saw me supporting both of us on my dinky reporter's salary because he was unemployed the whole time (except for two months at the very end, when he got a job in the warehouse of a hardware store). A relationship in which I had to hide the kitchen knives and bottles of aspirin from him or he'd hurt himself with them. Once I had to remove his dad's gun from his hands because he was threatening to kill himself; once I had to tell my boss I couldn't go on a work trip to California because of my boyfriend, who (I didn't tell my boss this) was jealous that he couldn't go along. I have missed college classes and job interviews during his frequent episodes or "freak-outs." He once called me from a cell phone in his car, in the parking lot at my job, threatening to kill himself, and his mom called 911 and cops came and I took the rest of the day off to be with him. 

I tell myself I had it hard.

He was having a freak-out. It was an everyday thing for us at that point, and had been for four or five years. It was always the same: He'd have some nagging concern, some burning question. Sometimes he wanted to hear that he was the only person I had ever loved. Sometimes it was more petty: "Was his dick bigger than mine?" I always knew that, no matter what he was asking, the bottom line was always simply: Do you love me more than anyone else? Should I feel threatened? Am I going to lose you? 

Feeling unworthy of being loved goes both ways in some of these relationships. In many of them, I bet.

He would worry, and then the interrogation would begin. Hours of him asking paranoid questions, me sometimes starting out with truthful answers but almost always revising my history, to talk him down, to calm him down, to not break his heart. Sometimes I told myself that I would give him a pretty lie "just for right now" -- the way you tell a person on a ledge that his life is worth living, when maybe his life sucks, you have no clue. And sometimes I just thought: "This is the version he needs to hear. I guess I'll just never be able to tell him the truth." And every time I told him something that wasn't the truth, something wedged between us, pushed us apart. Until finally it felt more as if we were living our lives on parallel lines -- sort of in the same place, technically going in the same direction, but not touching at all.

He was on this upholstered purple daybed I used to have. He was crying, trying to scratch or bite at himself, freaking out. Tim had long hair. Beautiful long hair that people in public always complimented, men and women both. He was thrashing around, writhing in deep emotional pain. I went over to him as always, to stop him from hurting himself, to pin him down even though he outweighed me by a significant amount, to soothe him. At some point during our struggle, I accidentally grabbed some of his hair. This was not intentional, but he was convulsing, his hair wild around him, and at first I only accidentally pulled some of it. But then I pulled it some more. This probably lasted all of a second. I only remember being mad, mad at him but also just mad at life. I'm pretty sure that my hand lightly hit his head when this was happening. I know this hurt him; his reaction was absolutely heartcrushing, like he was an innocent kid and his own mother had hit him for no reason. I was instantly horrified, and held him the way you would hold a puppy who had been beaten. Now I was crying, I was overcome with shame. I had crossed a line that you can never cross back over. I had hurt someone, someone I love, had hurt and hit him physically, in anger.

And yet I did it again one other time soon after that. Another freak-out, I went over to try to stop him, and like some twisted muscle memory -- my hand was wrapped in his hair and I was pulling some of it, trying to get him to stop but also just so angry. 

So I know what that's like, too.   

I know what at least some of my friends will tell me after reading this. They'll say I had it hard, they'll say I put up with a lot, they'll tell me not to be too hard on myself for this. But imagine if the genders were reversed -- some guy with a blog reveals that his manic-depressive ex-girlfriend was crying and suicidal and trying to hurt herself, so he went over and pulled her hair and one time he "found his hand" "lightly" hitting her on the head once. "Found his hand" doing that, as if some puppet-master God did it and not him. He would probably never tell anyone this in the first place. If he did, people would tell his current girlfriend to get away from him, or to be careful. I bet no one will tell my boyfriend that. 

"I have a small degree of personal experience with abuse." From both sides. 

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