I’ll hide. I’ll hide with all my might from having to face this thing, to admit this thing. And I’ll hide it from you with all I’ve got, under as many layers of antisocial behaviour that I can muster. In fact I’ll do it so well that most people miss it. Hell, I can bury it so well that even I miss it.
So all people see is the binge drinker, the user, the offender, the antisocial scum, the lout, the gobby one, the violent one, the one who doesn’t give a crap, the one who seems to be devoid of care, of feeling, lacking in common decency, common humanity.
What people find hard to see, what I don’t want to see, don’t want to have to acknowledge and process, is the pain that courses through my veins. The emotional pain that consumes me. Of life disappointed, of fundamental human needs unmet, of experiences that have skewed my view of the world, of others, of me. A pain that drives me, controls me, brings out the worst and not the best in me.
It’s not an excuse, but it is my explanation. I know other people have seen the things I’ve seen, felt the things I feel and they manage not to take it out on the people and places around them. Maybe they’ve had people in their lives- parents, carers, teachers, youth workers- who have cared enough to teach them appropriate coping skills, have shown them how to respond to challenging experiences with dignity, in a constructive rather than destructive way. Or maybe they’ve only turned their pain inwards rather than outwards and expressed in the purge or the cut or in other ways. Some go inwards, some go outwards, some do both. But we have all drunk from the same well of pain.
Problem is, it is easier to see pain and to want to see it when the behaviour doesn’t detrimentally affect others. The quieter the expression of pain, the less in your face it is, the less harm that is caused to others, the more compassion and understanding is on offer.
When I blow outwards, when I lash out, when I destroy, when I hurt others, I test the limits of sympathy, of compassion. But what if you could actually see the pain, acknowledged or unacknowledged that drives my actions?
Would it be easier to see past my obnoxiousness for what it really is? If I went around on crutches would you hold open the door for me? Would you offer to help?
My crutches are there, but people often don’t see them as that. They are the emotional crutches that get me through the moment, the hour, the day, the week. They are just as real as the ones that keep the kid with the broken leg mobile. They’re just harder to see; I don’t see them for what they are, and neither do most other people. Blowing my top to relieve some of the internal pressure, looking for fights to express my frustration, taking drugs or drinking to help me forget, to mask the pain, robbing people for a buzz, as a pick-me-up. I’m not being a shit just to be a shit, there is a pain that drives me to survive in whatever way I can.
Somewhere deep, deep down, often so deep down I can’t initially reach, I know that my way of coping is wrong. I know that this does not help me. I know it harms others. But I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know how else to get through the day, to get through my life. And if any sense of guilt or shame surfaces, I do not have the ability to process that either, so I’ll drink some more, offend some more, and bury that deeper down, along with the rest of my pain.
Sometimes I’ll have flashes of insight, I’ll realise I’m in a bad place and that there’s stuff I should do to at least try and sort it. Stuff that would help. But I just can’t. That’s why I’ll say in one moment that I’ll get the help, get a job, go see that person, and in the next will do the exact opposite, will return to my usual way of dealing with things. I’ll drive you mad.
You see, I’ll do whatever comes easiest, and continuing with my usual way is what is easiest to me right now. It might seem that my escapism takes more energy than doing the right thing, all the stuff that would actually help me. But it’s not about physical energy, it’s about mental and emotional energy, and I’m all out. And that’s why people, even those who initially wanted to help, look at me and my behaviour in disgust or despair and declare that I’m thoughtless, I clearly don’t understand what I am doing, or I do and just don’t care how it affects myself and others. And they’d be right. That’s the whole point.
I don’t want to think; thinking takes mental energy, and I don’t have any of that. I just do. Do what is there, what is easy, follow my crowd, act on impulse, do whatever it takes to feel a little bit alive, a little bit better about myself, do whatever it takes to avoid having to feel and address my pain. So even if I can see something better, more constructive, I lack the emotional energy to see it through. And you get frustrated. You have moved heaven and earth to create an opportunity for me, and I throw it back in your face. Little by little, I become a lost cause, beyond help. I am unlovable, unwanted, unfixable broken goods.
But this is nothing new to me. This is the easy route for me, to have confirmation of my undesirability. At least I know how rejection works. What you already know is what’s easiest right? Stick with what you know, at least life is predictable that way.
In a perverse way, even if I’m driving stolen cars at 90mph, high as a kite, I feel more safe than properly trying something new and constructive, laying myself out for more potential disappointment or pain. So I’ll stick with the pain I know, or the pain I’m so used to living with I don’t even really notice it, rather than potentially adding to it.
So how do you get me from going with what’s easiest and most damaging, to what’s harder but ultimately healing? How do you get me to acknowledge and address my pain when it’s the one thing I will run the hardest from?
First, you need to see beyond what the naked eye shows you. I may not have blood running down my face, scars on my arms. I may not have bandages, a cast, crutches or a wheelchair, but I am in pain. I am broken. I’m harder to like, harder to love, but I need someone to care enough to go beyond the obvious. Nobody behaves badly from a place of wholeness, of happiness.
Second, you need to show me the one thing that is in the shortest supply and for most goes against the grain- show me some real compassion, show me that you actually deep down care. Not the short-lived, conditional sort that dissipates as I frustrate the hell out of you, but the stuff that sticks. The stuff that suckers onto me and won’t let me go, whatever I do. The compassion that I don’t deserve. Help me to see glimpses of the seemingly impossible. The compassion that sees the broken me and not just my broken behaviour.
It might be a cup of tea, it might be help moving, a lift to the bus station, showing up for an appointment with another agency or unexpectedly turning up to support me in some activity. It’s the going above and beyond. As soon as you do more than your strict job description, more than any other person, worker or carer has done before for me, you show you care. I may throw it back in your face, I might not know how to deal with such positive attention, but any shard of compassion I see from you will make it easier for me to potentially come back again, to see you as a potential source of help.
And when you persist with your compassion even when I don’t treat you right, I will come to realise you are different. I then get to a place where I might let my barriers down enough to trust you, get to a place where I might listen to what you have to say and will let you try and help me improve my situation.
This doesn’t mean you should let me get away with treating you badly. If you enforce boundaries in an environment of compassion they become boundaries of care rather than boundaries of rejection. Boundaries that are explained well to me will not hurt me; they will be a rejection of my poor behaviour and not me. I will come to see them as the tools of compassion rather than weapons, used to provide the stability and consistency I so desperately crave in my chaotic world. They will not drive me away, they will draw me in closer.
Once I have established that you actually care, that you are safe, then I might begin to acknowledge that maybe everything isn’t as fine as I make it out to be. It becomes easier to cut through the bravado that I wrap myself in. But I won’t just suddenly emotionally strip off in front of you. No chance.
I’ve got through life by being hard. By being the obnoxious one; no-one can touch me then. No-one will mess with me, no-one can hurt me. And the best way in, the best way to help me shed this bravado is to meet me where I am at, to tap into my toughness, to start talking to me about this bravado thing I am good at. It’ll get me talking which is half the battle.
So start talking about when each of us has physically hurt ourselves. When you’ve burnt yourself on the oven, when you broke your arm, your nose, your finger. I might tell you about the time that I got stabbed in the butt. The time I got my nose broken. The time I skinned my leg coming off my scooter. I’ll show you a scar or two. That’s the easy sharing, the stuff we see. And I’m all about bravado so I won’t be able to help myself but show off how tough I am.
This can then lead us on to discussing how resilient the body is, how amazing its healing processes are. It’s then a short step for me to take to start talking about our minds, how our minds will also try to process and deal with pain, will look to heal themselves. You can then show me the biggest difference between our bodies and our minds.
Our minds can’t heal themselves in the same way as our bodies do, without any conscious input from us. Stuff happens inside us to heal our bodies without us being in control. We don’t consciously relay a message, “clot the blood, clot the blood” to a cut on our hand. The difficulty with the mind is that we are more consciously in control of it, and what’s worse we have to use the thing that is in pain, to try and fix itself. We are using something that is not making us feel great, to try and make us feel better.
It is unsurprising, then, that we often get it wrong, we often make the wrong decisions. We’ll behave in ways that don’t ultimately help us but make us feel better and in less pain in the short term- so we might use drugs, or offend, or lash out to try and make us feel better, but it often just makes it worse. We end up going into survival mode, ‘just coping’ mode rather than dealing with the real issue, dealing with our emotional injuries.
And show me that this isn’t just me, that everyone can make bad decisions or decisions that don’t ultimately help them when under emotional stress. Like hiding in TV programmes, in computer games, in a few too many wines after work when life has got on top of you, when actually the real issues need to be addressed- like the unmanageable workload, the death of a close family member, financial worries. They don’t have to be directly personal examples. I just need to see that I don’t have three heads, that we all have a tendency towards escapism when life gets too much, even if the way you deal with life’s difficulties isn’t as extreme as me.
It then becomes less risky for me to admit that maybe I am under emotional stress, that I am carrying around emotional scars, emotional pain. Even if I have suppressed my pain so well that I’m not really aware of it, at least I might begin to consider whether my actions are fuelled by a desire to escape, to avoid something. Everyone else does it in some way, so maybe I won’t worry so much about feeling weak in admitting it.
You see, one of the biggest barriers you have to help me get over is my desire to stay tough; it is my defence mechanism. One of my biggest fears about admitting, facing and processing my emotional pain is that I will turn into an emotional wimp; I’ll be weak and I’ll be putting myself at risk of further pain if anyone sees my vulnerability.
You have to get through to me that the more willing people are to deal with the source of their pain, the stronger they become, not weaker. The broken leg that is treated properly will end up less damaged and cause less long term pain if appropriate treatment is sought and we place our trust in others to help us.
In terms of helping me out with my emotional pain, a core part of that trust is believing that if I fall, you will help me up again. You will not declare me hopeless, useless, an unhealable cripple and leave me lying in the road, but will reach down and help me up again, resolute in the hope that I can be helped, I can progress, I can change, I can be healed. It might be a relatively quick process, it might take years. But without your hope for me, I will have none.
Once I have acknowledged my crutches for what they are, then the healing can begin. As I acknowledge my pain my need to hide from myself lessens over time and I become less emotionally exhausted and more emotionally available to deal with the challenge of change, of trying something new and different. New coping strategies and new opportunities become interesting and enticing rather than something to run from.
And it all starts with your compassion. The undeserved compassion. The relentless compassion. It teaches me trust. It teaches me selflessness. It teaches me the best and not the worst of life. Of how life can be given generously to others, mindful of other people’s needs and feelings. People want me to change my antisocial ways but they often don’t realise that I cannot be what I have not seen, what I have not experienced. Show me in yourself what I can look like. The showing of compassion can start anywhere, in anyone. Will you be that person for me today, tomorrow, next week? Will you hold open the door?