Sunday, June 17, 2012

Punting the Anklebiters

This summer is already emotionally tough for me and it's only halfway through June. Several factors have converged to create an ugly mess. Like a pimple you think you've squeezed out, but it won't heal because it keeps refilling under the scab and you realize there were three clogged pores, not one.

I recently read an article that made me choke on my lungs. This specifically deals with raking over a childish, unreliable father. That wasn't my problem. The 2x4 to the heart came when I read these words:

Tommy's eyes lit up.

"Wow," he said. "Amazing. What you just described is a dead-on, classic symptom of something called 'projective identification.'"

"Good gracious, what's that?"

"It manifests itself in different ways, but one of them is when people tell painful stories just to get a sympathetic reaction. It gives them a little high when the other person says, 'Oh, my goodness! I can't believe you went through that.'"

"What's wrong with that?" I asked. "People do it all the time."

"You're right – they do – but the problem is the person isn't dealing with his own junk – he's getting someone else to do it. And you especially see people do this when they've gone through painful experiences they haven't properly grieved."

It was exciting, in a way, to get a concrete diagnosis from Tommy, but it was also disturbing. If he was right, if I was retelling these stories so I could watch the listeners process my baggage – rather than do it myself – then I was basically just using these people.

I can't pretend I don't do that. I've been locked away from my emotions so long that telling the story of the 6 agonizing years before I escaped to college feels to me like I'm gossiping about someone else's sad life. "Isn't she brave? Bless her heart, to have gone through all that, and she doesn't even drink? The narrator shakes her head in mock-sympathetic admiration.

I also had a person from my past resurface suddenly whom we'll call Number 24. A man from my church back home, who went to middle and high school with me. We carpooled. I had a terrible crush on him that the entire church knew about (so it seemed). He and his wife just got out of seminary with counseling degrees (gulp) and moved to Charleston to find work. They're attending my church. (double gulp) So now Will and I are thrown together with this sweet, outgoing couple with fresh training, and one of them remembers me clearly from the bad old days. (triple gulp) I admit to a minor freakout when I heard Number and Mrs. 24 were moving here. It wasn't all vanity that I didn't want to have someone around who knew me when I was dumpy and belligerent; I also didn't want to tar this couple with my brush of old, sticky pain. I wanted to get to know Number 24 as an adult, and Mrs. 24 as her delightful self, free of association.But of course, in catching up and talking about the old days, it's all coming up again because my memories are dyed dark with the pain and grief, and this kind and compassionate couple, with their fresh training, are all too ready to practice on me.

The next straw on my back comes from my pastor. He's been preaching a series of summer homilies on the petty anklebiter sins that we keep around because they don't seem that harmful. This morning's was on anxiety. I didn't used to be an anxious person, a worrier. Worrying puts one outside of gratitude for God's provision. It cuts you off from the body of the church. He encouraged us to adopt one sin to focus on uprooting this summer. I think my unlovely pet is going to have to be anxiety. I worry constantly. I don't trust anyone but myself. This includes God, my husband and my parents. That's what happens when you're in free fall and the people around you, the church, God's people, don't roll out a net. And God ignores your screams when you hit the pavement. The screams cursing Him for not saving you. The screams begging Him to send help. The screams begging Him to put you out of your misery, because you cannot live with the pain. And eventually, you lie on your face in your pulped body long enough that your twisted bones knit together enough that you can get up and lurch away, an unrecognizable mockery of your former self. And then you get blamed for being twisted and ugly by the people who didn't catch you. Because what doesn't kill you doesn't always make you stronger. Sometimes it makes you horribly disfigured. That's how a carefree, spontaneous, trusting child becomes a worrier.

And finally, there's my husband. I've kept him at arm's length too long. He deserves better. He deserves a wife who has healed, not a shattered porcelain doll who sits on a shelf insisting she's ready to play, even though her legs are in a Ziploc bag taped to the back of her dress.

I want to have an emotionally open relationship with my husband. I want to forgive the people who let me down. I want to learn to trust God again, to recover the innocent faith of the child I was. I want to fully participate in church. To stop treating it as though it's a home and I'm a newly-rescued, formerly abused greyhound who hides behind the couch, only coming out when completely starving to steal the occasional roast off the counter.

This is definitely going to be a rough summer because I don't have skeletons in my closet. I have zombies in there, and it's all I can do to keep the door padlocked. I'm going to have to let them out, one by one, and shoot them.