Throughout the years of this blog, I've written about Sonja and her hard heart (that she thinks is compassionate and generous). A particular sticking point for me has been her belief that she loves people, when, in fact, she likes them until they have a problem, in which case she says she can no longer be involved with or care about them--because it is too painful to her to worry about them.
I believe what others would do because they consider it the humane thing, she sees as granting favors or special kindness.
Over the years I have struggled with this relationship and its frustrations. We were close at one time, but when my brain went awry, Sonja became angry, critical, and judgmental. Maybe it was some sort of warped, tough-love approach to a mental health crisis. I was appalled on many levels, but not the least of which was knowing she had a degree in clinical psychology. She has come to remind me of that commercial where the drill sergeant is a therapist telling his patient to toughen up and stop whining about being sad. It was a lot like that.
I know, however, that if you were to ask Sonja about it, she would say that she did a great kindness by letting me keep my job when I was barely able to do it--especially because she found me to be irritating and nearly intolerable to be around. But she never witnessed the mean and callous things she said to me along the way. She felt justified.
She would probably say that I said plenty of tactless and mean things along the way, too, but I would point out that I was under the influence of very strong medications that altered the functions of my brain's frontal lobe—what was her excuse?
Somewhere in 2007, I came to the conclusion that the people who purported to be my friends were, in fact, fair-weather friends. They all liked a very specific version of me, but not one of them was in it for the long haul, the ugly moments, or the unpleasantries of my condition. Instead, they all decided to lay low (lie low?) until I was better and the coast was clear, so to speak. I never forgave any of them--not one. Instead, I knew that for my own protection, I needed to immediately stop having emotional relationships with people. Period. I would go through the motions, but develop no meaningful attachments. All existing attachments had been severed by the sharp gashes of betrayal and abandonment. How dare I develop a condition that made them uncomfortable?
In 2007, my therapist asked me to write down a list of core beliefs about my situation. She wanted to know what I believed was my reality and how I perceived the fundamental truths of my life. I blogged about it, but published an abbreviated version of what I actually turned in on therapy day. The therapist’s goal was to find out where I was over-reacting or seeing things through the lens of emotion and where my perceptions were based on factual data. One of the things I wrote about was how angry and irritated Sonja was toward me.
Later, I wrote about someone Sonja and I knew who was suicidal and who had cut off communication with everyone. He was later found dead in a lake several states away. Throughout the time this man was missing, Sonja fumed. She said he was selfish and irresponsible and this was terribly unfair to his children. At one point, she cried about his kids, but never—not once—did she ever display any compassion or sympathy for the man himself or what he might have been going through. Instead, she said he brought his problems on himself and this was an unnecessary way to solve them. Word.
Now we’re here. In a strange and karmic twist of fate, Sonja’s husband has developed a health condition that has led him to being suicidal. She can’t cope. For months she has asked me what to do, what to do to help him.
At first, I was resentful. I thought it was very poor form for someone who had been so irritated by and dismissive of my suicidal thoughts to ask for my advice when her husband’s crisis came. Sonja would talk to her husband on the phone or read an email and come into my office and say, “Grant isn’t doing well. I can’t be his therapist. He needs professional help. I can’t take this.”
Over the months, it was this phrase, “I can’t take this. I can’t take this” that Sonja reiterated, along with, “I can’t be his therapist.” But nothing changed. She didn’t get help for herself or her husband. She continued to fret and say she couldn’t take it, but honestly, I never once heard her say anything along the lines of, “I’m so afraid I’m going to lose him. I’m afraid he’s going to go through with it. He’s in pain.” No. Only, “I can’t take this. He needs to get himself some help.”
At some point, I told Sonja that the best and most critical thing she could do was to ask Grant what he wanted—what would it take for him to feel better. She never asked, but from time to time said, “I don’t know what he wants. I can’t help him.” I told her that above all, she needed to tell him that she loved him and that she was there for whatever he needed. She said, “I did tell him that. It didn’t make any difference.” I told her to keep telling him, and to be sincere about it.
On Thursday of this week, Sonja said Grant was having a particularly hard time. She popped her head in my office and said, “So, if somebody keeps talking about suicide, that’s good, right? It means they aren’t actually going to do anything?”
I stood up and walked toward her. I tried to sound patient. She had learned nothing in seven years. All the articles I had given her, the knowledge I had tried to share, and there had been no progress.
“Sonja, no, it doesn’t mean that at all. When someone talks openly and repeatedly about wanting to commit suicide, they are actually telling you they are seriously considering it. Ask him. Ask him if he has a plan.”
I don’t know if my voice sounded sharp or impatient, but it was exactly how I felt. It seemed to me that she hadn’t taken any of us seriously. Not me, not the colleague, not Grant.
I sat at my computer and pulled up the website for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I emailed her the link with a note saying “What to watch for. I’m not sure what options you’re hoping for, but I don’t recommend forcing the issue. Hauling someone off to the hospital against their will is unpleasant and nothing ever made me feel worse about myself—like a wayward pet forced to spend time at the pound as a lesson.” Then I got up and walked over to her desk and said, “That toll-free number is for you, actually. Grant won’t call, but you can. They also help the people who are concerned about those in crisis. They’ll answer your questions and tell you where you can get help for yourself.” I could tell by the look on her face she wasn’t going to call, and my resentment rose a few more notches.
How could she not see that it was inappropriate to ask me about suicidal tendencies and even more inappropriate to ask me how to get her husband to stop talking about suicide? The woman she refers to as her “Mom in America” made three suicide attempts in the 1980s. Surely, she would be the better resource on this topic. Every time I thought about it, I was reminded again of how bad I have felt, and how, at my worst, Sonja was among those who scolded me, scoffed at me, and ignored me, but never comforted or encouraged me. I was overwhelmed and alone…You should take some time to know how that feels.
Sonja left for a meeting. A couple of hours later, she came back. She said something else about Grant and not being able to take it. I walked into her office and said, “Look. If you want him to stop talking about it, threaten to have him taken into protective hospital custody. Frank used to threaten me with that, and it worked. I mean, it didn’t change what I was thinking, but it certainly got me to stop bothering anyone else with it.”
Sonja looked at me. “He’s not bothering me. I love him and I don’t want him to die. Where did you ever get that he was bothering me? He’s my husband.”
I was confused. I must have looked confused. Sonja went on, “Are you saying that you think the reason I’m upset is because he’s ‘bothering’ me?”
I was honest. “Yes. I thought that’s what you meant. I mean, when it was me, all you got was angry and impatient. Nobody cared. You all just wanted me to go back to being normal.”
Sonja was obviously angered. “That is not true! That is not true at all. What did you think I meant when I said Grant needed help?
“I thought you were irritated because he wouldn’t get help.”
“Didn’t it occur to you that maybe I was concerned about my husband and I love him? Honestly? You thought I was bothered and wanted him to shut up??”
She spun her computer monitor around to show me a loving email she had written to her husband. “Would I have written that if I were ‘bothered’?”
“OK,” I said, “I misunderstood you. And that email is good. You’ve made progress, but you never said anything like that to me. You only ever got annoyed.”
Sonja burst out, “That is not true and you obviously aren’t remembering things as they were. “
I said, “No, we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that point. I have a good memory and yes, you, Frank, and all the friends I no longer have were annoyed.”
Sonja said a few more things, grabbed her bag, and left for the day. The gist of what was bothering her was that I thought she was capable of being annoyed instead of concerned. She couldn’t believe I had missed her point. She couldn’t believe I thought she was so heartless as to be annoyed by her husband’s state of mind and not in her own distress from the fear of his possible further decline.
As I thought about it later, I was surprised. The truth was, it really never had crossed my mind that she was anything but annoyed with Grant. She had never said she was afraid he was going to kill himself, only that she wanted him to stop saying those things.
The conversation haunted me for hours. I didn’t feel bad, exactly, for misunderstanding. It was unfortunate because honestly, I wasn’t making a character judgment on Sonja, although she certainly thought I was. I had no intention of making her feel bad, especially when I know she has a crisis going on with her husband.
What haunted me was that fact that it really never had crossed my mind that Sonja was anything but annoyed. I was sure, all along, that what she wanted was for me to tell her how she could get Grant to stop irritating her with talk of suicide and unworthiness. Why would I think any different than I had when I had only a very specific set of experiences to refer to? My assumptions were based on seven years of watching this person get pissed off when people she knew were suicidal. My assumptions were based on the person who has a history of writing people off because she “can’t bear to worry” about them when they are in crisis.
I understand how I came to the conclusion I did. I do not understand how Sonja can’t understand how I came to that conclusion.
Perhaps she doesn’t remember the day she sat across from me. It was one of the worst weeks of my life. I had told her straight-out that I wanted to die. She looked furious. She stabbed her finger into the air pointing in my direction and punctuatin each word she said, “You know how I feel? I’m angry. I’m angry at you because you’re a quitter. I expected more of you and you need to try harder to get better.” I’ve turned that over and over in my mind the last few years, but I have never been able to see any love, comfort, or encouragement in her words.
What’s nagging me more than any of that, though, is that I think I don’t really care what happens to Grant, and, I can’t believe I have lost the ability to read people or to perceive a situation from another person’s experience. I depend on my ability to pick up nuances and to understand what people aren’t saying. This is how I know what to say to people and what to avoid. It’s how I stay on the good side.
Seriously, I’ve never been this blinded by my own emotional filters, and that worries me.
I'm not sure how I feel about not feeling much interest in anyone else, either. I may offically be unsympathetic and anti-social.