Bulwarks, Battlements… & Ducks

Strange title, eh? I was trying to figure out how to share about a particular set of personal flaws i’m trying to master, and i thought it might serve me well. Maya Angelou once spoke about not allowing oneself to be “pecked to death by ducks.” I understood that only years later, when i was extricating myself from friends and family who took little pieces out of me every chance they got. The backhanded compliment and the voice of disdain and the subtle eyeroll… It was difficult and scary to move away from these relationships until i clued in to how much better i was feeling. These people “meant to have my life,” a piece at a time, and i was bleeding to death slowly, from a thousand little bites.

Getting space from them –which is all i’d intended to do when i began– allowed me to start healing from these attacks. After a while, i had an experience of peace, so much so that even i, in my generally dissociated state, was able to easily mark the anxiety that welled up inside me at the mere prospect of any contact with them. I’ve been happily estranged from all of the pecking ducks in my life for nearly 10yrs now.
It’s only been in the last year or so that it’s come to my attention that i can also be a duck sometimes. And i’m guilty of pecking at those with whom i share living space, particularly my husband and my sons.

There are reasons i do this, of course. Everyone has reasons – genuine, legitimate reasons. The people i left behind that did it to me probably have some fine ones. However, that does not excuse crappy behaviour. The behaviour i’m currently focused on eliminating is entrenched, and broad in scope. It’s manipulation. It’s an ugly trait of mine – a ubiquitous stinkweed in my garden, and i’m pulling it out at the roots, wherever i find it.

It was taught to me, and modeled for me. My mother was a master manipulator. By the time she had me, i think honesty and forthrightness were already well behind her. And once she made the decision to use me as a commodity, i doubt she drew an honest breath. Whatever her own reasons, she snuck up to whatever and whomever she wanted. If she ever came at anything head-on, it was calculated, and generally secondary to what she really wanted. I am convinced that people were sport for her. We were all mice in her maze, and she took pleasure in seeing what she could make us do. We were either utterly clueless, or wrong about her true intentions.

When i was barely out of toddlerhood, she taught me panhandling and shoplifting. I would stand outside the local bar, while she was inside, targeting some drunken mark. It wasn’t as big a deal for a child to be out on their own back in those days, and if anyone ever expressed concern, i knew what to say and how to act to allay their fears. I was always tall for my age, and i presented as older than i actually was. I was the perfect blend of innocent and precocious. I was always clean and well groomed in those days. I looked nice – but not too nice. After speaking with me for a couple of minutes, many people were charmed into believing i wasn’t being abused or neglected, but my mother and i could sure use a couple of bucks, which they thoughtfully tucked into my pocket or purse.

She taught me cold reading, too. She was a skilled fortune-teller. I’m not here to speak on whether or not any of it is for real, i’m only saying that her “gifts” were pure con. I knew what to say to whom, based on how they dressed, how they spoke to me, what they drove, whom they were with, what purchases they might be carrying… As i got older, she taught me palm reading, reflexology, reading auras, etc. She also taught me how to shoplift food and necessities from grocery departments. Knowing what i know now –that she worked good jobs that paid a living wage– i don’t know why we were so poor. I think it was mostly selfishness with a little bit of lousy money management, but whatever it was, i grew up extremely poor. What little we did have was tightly controlled by her, and could be given or withheld based on her whims.

What methods of control and manipulation she didn’t teach me outright, i picked up by how she treated others. She could get what she wanted from me or my stepfather or siblings with a variety of recognisable methods:

– a withering look;
– an eyeroll;
– a dangerous glare;
– a deep sigh;
– the silent treatment;
– a sarcastic comment;
– a pointed question, e.g. Do you think you should be eating/wearing/saying/doing that?

I know a lot of people do these kinds of things. They’re easily identifiable as manipulative by anyone who’s even half paying attention. My mother had developed these methods to a fine art, though. And as with most families, a lot of how we acted and responded to each other was unconscious and reflexive in nature. Plus, we were all afraid of her – every single one of us. She could escalate a situation, going from zero to light speed in seconds flat. And she wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone –oh, she could play scared and hurt and sad when it suited her purposes– but i’m convinced everyone was a mark to her. Underneath her sweet and jovial facade lay a deeply dangerous woman, full of white hot fury that could quickly manifest in a capable, easy violence.

I grew up thinking that sort of behaviour, that kind of treatment, was normal.
If i thought about it at all, that is. (I did not, until i was an adult.)

I can be petty even now, sure. I’m far from perfect, like most of us. But i’m specifically posting today about some of those sneaky, petty, duck-bitey ways of getting something from someone. It’s a way to get what i want without actually having to ask for it.
It’s about control, and avoiding rejection.
Repeating that last bit louder, for my friends in the back row:
It’s about control, and avoiding rejection.

I’m working at removing all of those behaviours from the above list. Those petty, passive-aggressive, nasty tendencies that were bred into me, that i thought were just the price of 2 human beings doing business with each other. One had to get over on the other. Life as a zero sum game.
(To be honest, you will pry my sarcasm from my cold, dead hands… But i will use it judiciously, okay?)

I found out a few years ago, that there are not a few people intimidated by me. I was surprised by that. After giving it some thought, i figured out where the disconnect was happening. I see myself from the inside, and i interpret things through my experiences, my opinions and beliefs, my filters. I have blindspots; things i’m unaware of, things i haven’t learned yet.
I see myself as this sweet, nice, funny gal with a salty tongue and twisty sense of humour. I’m privy to how insecure and frightened i can be, and how intimidated >>i<< am by other people and the world around me. >>I<< know that some of how i present is a facade, created out of childhood trauma, mental illness, neuroatypicality (if that’s not a word, it is now), a desperate need for connection and yet a colossal fear of rejection.

The truth is i AM sweet and nice. I am kind and empathetic and generous. The truth also is that it can be hard to get past all of my protections to have a genuine experience of me as who i am. Another truth is that it is no one’s job to get past my myriad defenses.
It is MY job to lay down my weapons, lower the drawbridge, stand at my battlements, and invite those i will to come in.
And who’d want to approach with snapping, cavernous-jawed, toothy creatures in my moat and a cannon at every embrasure? Why come in to break bread and drink a toast when the hearth is cold, the hallways damp and drafty, and there’s nothing in the pot, bubbling away and wafting a welcoming smell?

Enough imagery – now to the meat of the matter. Heh.
I’m working hard to drop all of my passive-aggressive defenses and manipulative conduct. There’s no longer any need for it. I am not in danger anymore, i am surrounded by loved ones who dearly love me. They have proven already that they will not reject me, nor betray me, and they are willing to take the time and effort to work out any issues between us or difficulties we may have navigating a relationship with one another. From this bastion of comfort, care, and commitment i can venture out or invite others in to take a load off and set a spell.
If a visitor overstays or otherwise becomes unwelcome i am free and well within my rights to bid them adieu. I needn’t fear that, or an outright rejection of my invitation and hospitality. My castle is filled and fortified and guests may come and go as either of us will it to be so.

I ask for what i want and i state what i do not, plainly and without fanfare.
I do not take to my chaise longue with a case of the vapours.
I no longer treat others as if they’re stupid for not knowing something that i do.
I’m not playing for the power position.
I don’t view asking for something as a vulnerability, nor do i see it as a loss to have to ask, or a victory to receive it without using plain language.
I’m not expecting everyone to eventually hurt me and leave me.
I act on the outside who i am on the inside, because i know for a fact that rejection won’t kill me.
I seek kindness, generosity, understanding, and willingness in others as i do in myself.

No more pecking.
I won’t allow anyone to nip little bits out of me anymore.
And i hope that anyone who reads this and knows me personally doesn’t tolerate that crap from me.
At least, not ever again.

And if I’ve built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire

Then let me build a bridge
For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire
~ Sting, Fortress Around Your Heart


With Thought and Care,
~H~

*As she aged, gained weight, and became more of a shut-in, it slipped more and more until she wasn’t fooling anybody anymore. At the end, the only people she could exert control over was her husband, her kids, and various members of her 12-step program and her church.



IMAGE: Robert Gramner

On Lying, Being Fake, and General Asshattery

I read a meme a few months ago, and i’ve been turning it around in my brain since then. I knew right away that i wanted to write about it, but any time i sat down at the keyboard, nothing i bashed out seemed to capture my feelings. I can’t find where i saved it, i can’t even be sure i did save it, but that’s okay, i’ll give you the gist.

The creator of the meme requested that at their funeral, people tell the truth about them. Further, they asked that no one give banal, meaningless or patently false accounts of them as a person, because they didn’t always have a smile on their face, and sometimes they were an asshole.

It struck me, and resonated, long after i’d seen it. It also led me to some other thoughts that are along the same line… I think? I’m going to attempt to present these ponderings in a cohesive way, but as with anything i write, just because i get it, doesn’t mean you will.

I want to be real and i want to be known.

But sometimes i’m cool with being hidden and fake.
Like when i’m at the injectionist’s for some cosmetic work. I can see how most people act when they’re there. It took some courage to go and be surrounded by young, beautiful women who look like they’re IG models, and older sophisticates who appear to have a lot of dough. I don’t have much chutzpah left over after coping, to boldly be my weirdo self. I feel fine about plastering a huge smile on my face and using that voice – you know the one, right?

Some people i don’t know well enough, and some set off inside alarms.
It’s fine to behave in a somewhat generic, slightly subdued way until i know folks better, i think. If you want to come at me as 100% you, i’m cool with that, i just personally feel a bit safer in new social situations with a bit of anonymity.
There’s also the odd time where the person i’m interacting with triggers me (reminds me of an abuser), or just plants immediate red flags – like the person who stares in an overtly sexual way.

Many situations don’t require me to be my full self, and some things flow better without the full meal deal of my personality.
When i’m at the till, paying for my items, and there’s a bunch of people waiting behind me, neither the cashier nor the waiting customers are looking to forge a lifetime bond with my (incredibly charismatic) self.

I don’t think i could be described as down-to-earth, or even genuine, as an ex-friend once informed me by email (yep, still a bit tetchy about that one). I’m a multiple, after all. My face can be a mask, my body the puppet of a person who is not quite me. I’ve hidden my true self from others many times – both reflexively and with conscious intent.

I always want to know the truth, but sometimes i’ll lie, and i don’t feel bad about it.

If i don’t want to do something, and i don’t have the energy or desire to go into the reason why, i will totally fib.
If it’s a large gathering, or maybe i don’t know the person i’m doing the thing with very well, i feel no guilt begging off due to illness.
I should say though, that i’m fairly up front with my mental/emotional/social issues, and i’m selective about who i socialise with, so most of the time i can just say, Can’t people, and it’s understood and accepted without further explanation.

If my response could hurt someone’s feelings, i might lie.
That How do i look? one comes to mind. If i’m close with the person asking, i may say if they look awful. I’m more apt to pick something i like, or pick 1 piece of the outfit to change. I know for some that’s not good enough, and i’m obfuscating. Okay. <insertshrughere>
Sometimes i’ll purposely misunderstand the question. I’ve found that people are often loathe to restate, so i can avoid saying the potentially hurtful or contentious thing.

I’m glad when people ask more than one question at a time. I’ll pick the one i can be honest about without getting into something i’d rather not. That dislike to restate the question comes into play here.

I think there are a lot of situations where lying is fine.
It’s been my experience that everyone lies.
It’s also been my experience that, those who rail about hating liars are often the biggest ones, and i give them a wide berth.

There are only 2 people i won’t lie to – my doctor and myself.
The rest of you are fair game.*

I bring this up because i’m not “honest to a fault”, and i don’t want to be.

Another thing i hear said with respect to the dead is that they would give you the shirt off their back.
Well, i almost certainly won’t, unless you’re my child.
My husband won’t get the shirt off my back, and neither will my best friends.
I may die of exposure without my shirt, and i like living.
If there’s room, i’ll share the space inside my shirt with whom i will, but that’s dependent on circumstances.

There is a point at which i’m giving too much, and the point is mine to discern, and i do so carefully. I will not empty my vessel for anyone, and seeing as my children are all grown now, no, not even for them.
I don’t see the virtue in poverty.
The dead share nothing.**

Another thing you couldn’t say about me is that i’ll do anything for anybody. I won’t.
Which brings up judgment too, because i will judge. I will ask myself if doing the thing is worth my time and resources. If i don’t think it is, i don’t do the thing.
That’s not to say that i won’t still throw good money after bad, or help someone that i think may not appreciate it. I’ll pour myself into an unwinnable cause.
But i’ve taken a hard look at the situation before i decided to throw the dice anyway, because sometimes i win when i lose.

Oh, and my favourite remembrance of the dead:
“They were always happy, and always had a smile on their face.”

NO.
I’ll be damned if i’m going to smile when i’ve got nothing to smile about. Hiding and subjugating how i feel is one of the things that screwed me up this badly.
I can smile at a person on the street, or at someone who’s providing me a service. I don’t need everyone to know i’m having a low day (mostly). I don’t need to tell everyone that i’m currently riddled with anxiety (usually). But if we have any kind of rapport, i may very well tell you a bit about my sadness or stress, because it helps me, and i dare to think it could help you, too.
This is not contradictory to my prior statement that sometimes i wear a mask on purpose.
These are choices i make, dependent on the situation, with whom i’m dealing, and how many spoons are in my drawer. I’ve collected a number of tools over the years that are there to help me be functional in my day-to-day living. If i can, i generally prefer to let it all hang out, but that is not always wise, or appropriate, or timely, or safe.
Discernment. I haz it.
Sometimes it’s no one’s business.
Further, it’s normal and fine for folks to have neither the time, nor the desire to get the full HistrionicaButterfly experience. I can be a lot.

Which brings me to the best part.
Occasionally, i can be a good and proper asshole.
Let me demonstrate my honesty.

There are reasons and explanations and mitigating factors that perhaps cause and at least influence my assholery, but the unvarnished truth is:

– i hate questions, and will obfuscate, hedge, and get outright testy in my answers,
– my sarcasm can verge on caustic,
– i’ll disappear with no warning or explanation,
– i keep even the most worthy people at arm’s length,
– i regularly make mountains out of molehills,
– i’ve got a know-it-all streak,
– i’ve bitten more than a few heads off for no good reason,
– i’m so focused on myself i can miss the needs of others,
– i can be vicious,
– i sometimes manipulate others to get what i want,
– i’m an excuse-maker and dodger of responsibilities.

There are more, but they fall under annoying personality traits rather than character flaws. Like my ability to talk the leg off a chair (or clamming up when it’s most important that i talk), or spend us into the poorhouse, or my exhausting need for reassurance and approval, or my constant self-doubt.

This is me. This is who i am. Dying doesn’t remake me into a perfect human. Loving me doesn’t mean that i wasn’t sometimes hard to love. It won’t be disrespectful to tell the truth about the kind of person i was. In fact, it’d be honouring me.

I’ve failed many times. My biggest failures involve the people i love most in the world.
I’m standoffish, emotionally unavailable, unreliable, and intensely self-focused.
I can be pushy, obnoxious, thoughtless, demanding, critical, and infuriatingly contrary.
It’s only the truth.
It doesn’t negate all the wonderful, beautiful, amazing things about me. (I won’t go into those, because the length of this piece would treble. Heh.)

Of course, once i’m dead everyone’s free to sugar-coat me or not, as they will.
A person reading this might think the truth doesn’t matter so much to me, but in fact it does, very, very much. I share this nakedly in part to emphasise how important it is. I don’t think it’s contradictory or even ironic.
Do yourself and the rest of humanity a favour and don’t slap a coat of Hollywood paint on the portrait of my life.

I’m absolutely fabulous, and also an utter shithead.

If I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up.
~ Albert Camus

*I’m being facetious, here.
Also, my blog is brutally honest, in case anyone was wondering.

**I’m referring to literal resources, here. Food, drink, shelter, money, physical effort, even time.