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Friend Redefined

When you have an EMDR treatment, the therapist tells you that the memory you are reprocessing in therapy may come back to you a lot over the coming week, and that you should take that opportunity to continue thinking and processing, don’t resist the thought but just go with the process. My thoughts from my last session (detailed here) have left me pondering two interrelated ideas: abandonment and friendship. I’ve experienced a good deal of abandonment from numerous people throughout my life, and, partly as a consequence, I’ve had to constantly redefine what it means to be my friend.

Kindergarten was really the first time I ever met children my own age. And, so it seemed, everyone liked everyone else and  played with everyone else. It didn’t occur to me that there were kids who didn’t like me. (Imagine my shock when I worked in a daycare, and the three-year-olds cliqued off Mean Girls-style.)

But then I got to first grade, and everything changed. The children grouped up during recess, and I was left out. You see, I was the boy who played with dolls, thus violating the strict gender-segregation codes instilled in us by the pink-aisle marketing mentality. (I will say this for my parents–they let me shop in whatever aisle I wanted.) On occasion, a girl might let me play with her, but for the most part, I was a pariah.

At this point in my life, “friend” meant “playmate”, and I didn’t really have any. Sometimes a fourth- or fifth-grader would feel sorry for me and tell me, “I’m your friend,” but, of course, they didn’t play with me. Now I understand the vast developmental differences that justify why they didn’t play with me, but at the time their words sounded hollow.

In second grade, I developed a strategy. I would befriend “new kids” their very first day of school, before anyone could turn them against me. And I would have a playmate — until my friend moved away, which always happened, often in a few months’ time.

By third grade, with a sporadic history of playmates, I altered my definition of “friend” to “someone who doesn’t make fun of you to your face”. That was fully half my class. I had a lot of friends.

In fifth grade, it was “someone who sticks up for you”.

In seventh grade, it was “nobody”. What friends I had in sixth grade were not in my classes, and had taken an interest in girls.

In ninth grade, it was “people who spend time with you” — not far removed from “playmate”.

The line between “friend” and “enemy” blurred sometimes. Some of the members of my church youth group bullied me, but the youth pastor said it was because they liked me. And so I let them bully me some more.

In Bible college, “friend” meant “someone to whom I can entrust my secrets” — and I was carrying the biggest whopper of a secret: I was gay.

At age 29, it was “someone who stuck with me after I came out of the closet”. For a while, that was two people.

At 30, it was again “nobody”, as I pulled up stakes under duress and moved to Minneapolis.

It stayed “nobody” for two years. Then I randomly fell into a large circle of friends. And we spent a lot of time together. And we played games. And we would entrust our secrets to each other.

And along the way, I joined Facebook. I reconnected to friends I had lost along the way. As well as a lot  of acquaintances. But we don’t call it “acquaintancing” on Facebook. We call it “friending”. So in social media, the count of those who are considered my friend is artificially high.

But then, two years ago, I went back to school. For various reasons, I fell out of the circle of friends with whom I had spent time and played games and entrusted secrets. This hurt. I doubled down and focused on my schoolwork.

Now I look to relocate in a few months. And I find that my social life the last two years is nearly as bereft as it was my first two years in Minneapolis. I currently have some opportunities to develop new relationships, but it seems like a fool’s errand since I’ll be leaving them soon.

And I’m stuck wondering if this move will mean inventing a new definition of “friend” to tide me over until everyone leaves again.

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Voyager

This morning was my weekly EMDR therapy. This is my treatment for PTSD. I feel like I’m drowning in initials, sometimes.

EMDR stands for “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing”, but the name is a bit deceiving. Originally it involved eye movement , but now it can involve any number of sensory inputs. For my treatment, I hold two small vibrating devices, one in each hand.

Basically, when someone undergoes severe trauma, their brain gets rewired to process sensory data differently, so they’re always on guard, hypervigilant. It makes the sufferer tense and anxious and worried pretty much constantly. In EMDR, the therapist goes back into the traumatic memories with the aid of the sensory input to undo some of the traumatic damage and make the patient’s life less tense — easier.

My description doesn’t really do the process justice. I’m making it sound like the therapist is minimizing the trauma, trivializing its impact. It’s not that. It’s more that it takes away the power that the traumatic event has had over you. It helps you overcome.

As I was going through my memories today, strangely enough, I kept coming back to scenes from Star Trek: Voyager. Of course, I’ve been running through the series on Netflix (just finished Season 2 Episode 12 a bit ago). But I also have recurring dreams set in the show, in which the Borg are attempting to assimilate the U.S.S. Voyager.

The ship of my dreams, literally. From http://memory-alpha.org

At first, I tried to pull my thoughts back to the memory I was supposed to be working on, but my therapist told me to just follow this train of thought and observe it.

And I flashed through all the characters on the show as if they were photos in a family album.

Family. It struck me that this is the appeal of the show for me.

If you’re not familiar with the show, a very simplified version of the plot is that the crew of a starship is hurtled halfway across the galaxy, and they are trying to get back to Earth with none of the support or allies they are used to having. So the crew all have to learn to rely on each other. And as the series goes on, the crew think of themselves more and more as a family, even using that word for themselves.

And it strikes me that this is a common theme in shows at the time. (Voyager ran from 1995 to 2001.) I came across a critique of the show Friends a couple of days ago. (If I have time, I’ll dig up the link later.) It decried the show for featuring the most self-absorbed characters in history, that their entire lives revolve around their immediate relationships, with no connection to the outside world.

I think the critic is missing the point. Like many shows that achieve a certain canonization in our culture, it depicts a fantasy. It gives its characters the very things we wish for in life.

And for a child of the Nineties (which is really more what I am despite the fact that I’m pushing 40), this idea of security in relationships means everything. We, the generation whose families broke up, whose parents may not have been around (in the same way they were so conspicuously absent in John Hughes movies and suchlike) craved some depiction of the comfort, safety, and love we so desperately wanted in our own lives.

I may well find myself back on the bridge of Voyager after I drift to sleep tonight. And when I do, I’ll see a reflection of the sort of connections I’ve always wanted in my life.

“Crazy”

I’ve been meaning to follow up my last blog post, because the incident has still left me with a lot on my mind. You see, the thing is, the gentleman caught me catching the bus on a Wednesday afternoon. If he had caught me on a Monday morning, I would have been indeed on my way to the “crazy clinic”.

I have a multitude of psychological impairments for which I have been treated for years, and which I have talked about with some regularity on this blog: generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, delayed sleep-phase disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. With the exception of the circadian-rhythm issues, these all came from having lived a less than easy life. There were a lot of bad things I went through as a child that left a permanent mark on my psyche. And I’ve been working diligently with medical professionals to erase that mark the best I can.

What if the gentleman had encountered me on a Monday morning? Who knows. I would most likely have changed bus stops, but I probably would have been in tears along the way.

I like to pretend that my disabilities are invisible, that you would just assume I’m healthy if you passed me on the street. This isn’t really the case, though. My disabilities leave me with tense body language and a hypervigilant engagement with my surroundings.

And some people, rather than observing such symptoms in a person and reacting with sympathy, instead erase them with words like “crazy”. Sadly, the mental illness known as lack of empathy is underdiagnosed in our culture.

I will not be erased. I will stand. I will stand for those unable to stand for themselves.

Out of Order (Forever?)

Photo by Andrea R (flickr.com)

Claire Robertson* is one of the strongest people I know. She survived a kidnapping as a child and a sexual assault as an adult, and fights Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result. She worked as a nurse, but a serious accident meant back surgery and physical disability. During the surgery, doctors discovered that she has a rare congenital connective-tissue disorder that will only get worse.

She fought for several years through multiple denials to procure Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). When she finally received it, her monthly payments were $650 per month—nowhere near the $1,000 per month she had been told.

Her husband Brian holds a Master’s degree in history. However, the downturn in the economy has eliminated all hiring in his field, vacancies only coming when someone retires or dies. He looked into going back to school to teach junior-high or high school, but a change in the curriculum meant that he would have to work for a semester in a full-time unpaid internship, with no time to earn an income. He works from home as a medical transcriptionist, a field in which wages have plummeted over the past several years as more and more of the work has been outsourced to India.

Claire and Brian have two children, both of whom have autism. Their daughter Alexis graduated from high school a year ago, but presently lives at home as she struggles with major bouts of depression and suicidal ideation, as well as with the same connective-tissue disorder Claire suffers. Alexis hopes to go to college to study veterinary medicine. She has been trained as a PCA and serves in this role for their son Ethan, but the work is only sporadic—Alexis made less than $4000 last year. Ethan is nine. A bright and loving child, he nonetheless battles severe autistic symptoms. He is enrolled in special-education courses and requires various rehabilitative services.

Brian averages $1400 a month; however, his income can vary greatly because it depends on how much work he is assigned. Sometimes he earns nothing in a pay period. On rare occasion he gets paid overtime. When Claire started receiving SSDI, the family lost their food stamps entirely, and Ethan’s monthly SSDI payments dropped from $641 to $350—not really enough to pay for Ethan’s medical needs. All but Brian receive medical insurance through the state of Minnesota, which has one of the most generous state-insurance programs in the United States. When Claire began receiving SSDI, she was automatically moved to Medicare insurance (she had no say in the matter), for which she must pay $101 per month out of pocket, on top of high copays on her dozen-plus medications. Brian was dropped from state insurance entirely because his employer offers insurance—never mind the fact that the premiums in the employer’s program exceed Brian’s entire income. Thus Brian has no way to treat his own multiple medical issues, which include high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and depression.

Two years ago, the Robertsons were kicked out of their home illegally by a new landlord, and didn’t have the resources to fight it in court, so they found themselves temporarily homeless, living out of a motel. They found one house in their price range and bought it, but it has major structural issue, including a roof that needs to be replaced, for which they lost their homeowner’s insurance and now must pay for the roof out of pocket. Moreover, the house does not have a ramp for Claire to use her wheelchair, and the Robertsons cannot afford to build one on their own. They have requested assistance from Habitat for Humanity, but that organization must wait for funding approval from the government before they can proceed. They hope to have the ramp installed sometime next year.

The Robertsons just received a letter stating that, because of the handful of checks for which Brian was paid overtime, not only have they lost Ethan’s $350 monthly check entirely, but Social Security has declared the loss retroactive—the family must pay Social Security $1400 to repay the SSDI payments they had been receiving since May.

I write all of this for two reasons. First is to bring awareness to just how severely broken the assistance system is in the United States. It operates on a binary structure—either one is entirely on the System or entirely off. Furthermore, the income threshold at which one is kicked off the System is well below what one can afford to live on (unless one is in subsidized housing, which, because of long-standing application freezes nationwide, for all intents doesn’t exist unless you’re already living in it). Almost anything one can do to move oneself into safe financial straits is prohibited. Some people “know” the System is broken (and even more broken now because of cuts to poverty programs like Head Start and public housing, thanks to Congress’s sequester). But knowledge often is not enough to prompt one to action, which is why I asked Claire if I could share her family’s story. I wanted to put a face to what is going on in America.

The other reason I am relating this story is because I wish to serve notice to anyone who would dare write off the Robertsons as “lazy” and would tell them to “just get a job”. If you think that, first off, you haven’t read a damn word I’ve written up to this point.

And where do you suggest they “get a job”? Jobs are scarce, and the ones that are available are part-time and/or pay next to nothing nothing (thanks in large part to profit-hoarding and a refusal to invest in the country’s infrastructure, education, etc.).

If you had the gall to express such ideas to my face or to the Robertsons’, I wouldn’t blame myself or them if I/they slapped you—and I’m a pacifist. But folks never express these ideas face-to-face. They do so from the safety of blog comments sections, ballot boxes, and legislative office.

Finally, if this is your response, I’m going to question how you were raised. I was raised not to judge any human being until I had walked a mile in their shoes, and if you were raised differently, then I would ask you to make up for your poor parenting and re-educate yourself. If you don’t, you’re the lazy one, for not exercising your brain or your heart.

*Names changed to protect identity.