What happened to me

For most of my life I thought that people being unable to help me was a deficit on their part, or maybe it simply meant that there was no help. No hope, no solution. It was a fact of life, something that set my depression in stone. Now, though, I realize that the reason why I often feel worse after people tried to help me might lie in me. Maybe it is just so that them caring about me makes me hate myself because I feel that I cannot really reciprocate.

There´s something inside of me that just doesn´t care that others care about me. Something cold and aggressive. An impulse to spit back at anyone who is kind to me. And then there´s me, smile frozen with fear as I explain in a shaky voice that of course I don´t really mean that and of course I care, like a parent apologizing for an ill-behaved toddler. If you ask me if it´s true, I´ll respond with full-blown terror. Mental melt-down. I don´t know what the truth is and maybe I prefer it that way.

I once was in a relationship with a person who saw this thing inside of me. She saw it in my jealous competitiveness (though hers was far worse), she saw it in little acts of neglect like being late for a meeting. She demanded that I make it go away. She demanded that I should always be honest with her, which required that I let this thing speak, and yet I was emotionally punished for what it said. “Do you really have the will to change?” she asked. On the one hand, yes, of course I was. On the other hand, though, that thing hated and mocked everything she said, didn´t feel guilty, didn´t want to change. Could I answer truthfully, though? She always said that she was willing to forgive absolutely everything, as long as I was 1) honest and 2) truly trying to change. By asking if I truly wanted to change, she got me into a terrible dilemma. One way or the other, I was bound to do something unforgivable. I either had to tell her that at least part of me didn´t want to change at all, that part of me was miles away from her and felt no respect whatsoever, or I had to be dishonest. And if I was dishonest once, I had to pull it through. Forever.

I was terrified of abandonment. Still am. I was terrified she would leave me if she caught me either being dishonest or not wanting to change. (Eventually, this is exactly what she did.) At the same time I could no longer honestly tell her that I wanted to see her or talk to her. There came a point when the thought alone horrified me. In the final weeks we usually talked once a day over the phone, in the evening. Right after that phone call I felt a sense of relief, at least if it had gone well, if I had felt somehow connected to her, if she was in a cheerful mood when we hung up. I tried not to think too much about anything afterwards. I fell asleep, went to school in the morning, felt almost normal. Then I came home and as the evening approached I started to feel more and more nervous. I was eager to call her, and then, when I had her on the phone, I didn´t know what to say and I was terrified I might say something wrong. This, of course, revealed a terrible lack of love. Unforgivable. Talking about it would lead to abandonment or another kind of punishment, but not talking about it was dishonest and therefore unforgivable.

If I was going to do something unforgivable either way, there was only one way out: What I knew was true simply couldn´t be true. Mustn´t be. If I had to be honest with her and yet couldn´t because the truth was too harsh, then I had to lie to myself. I had to deceive myself so thoroughly that I could honestly tell her something that wasn´t correct. Yes, that´s doublethink.

That makes it sound as if I was a fraud, someone who never cared about her. But the problem is that I confused myself so thoroughly that I still don´t know what the truth is. I never made the decision to deceive myself or her. What I´m doing here is guesswork. And still I can´t quite believe myself when I say this, because I do have a strong motivation to lie, right?

What happened to me is that I became terrified of my own feelings and thoughts, terrified of who I am. Every single thought, and every little thing I did could turn out to be something I had to be honest with her about. I was starting to dissect my rotten personality on my own, and every time I came up with something I wondered if I had to tell her about it. Essentially, I had no right to privacy anymore. If I didn´t really love her, if I had any negative feelings, any character deformations relevant to our friendship, then I was abusing her trust by not telling her. And yet I was upsetting and hurting her by telling her. I was inherently toxic. Damned if you do, damned if you don´t.

She did encourage this. Once I told her about a psychology book I had read a few weeks back, and some thoughts I´d had about it and what it said about me. She, in a suspicious voice: “Why didn´t you tell me?” – “Cowardice.” I automatically replied. I don´t know to what extent I believed it myself and to what extent I was going for the only answer that wouldn´t cause her to accuse me of dishonesty. Maybe I applied the same mechanism here: I believed what I had to believe in order to not have to consciously lie to appease her.

I believe that her demands resemble those of totalitarian regimes like in 1984. There is only one “true” answer, nothing else will be accepted, but you´re supposed to mean what you say. There is this famous torture scene in the third part of the book where O´Brien holds up four fingers and asks Winston how many fingers he´s holding up. “Four.” Winston says. “And if the Party says that it is not four but five – how many?” O´Brien asks. “Four.” Winston replies and in turn is tortured with electric shocks. “Four!” he shouts again and again. “What else can I say?” Then, eventually, he yells: “Five!”, out of sheer desperation. O´Brien, however, is not content with that. “No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think there are four.” – “How can I help it?” Winston cries. “How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four!” O´Brien continues torturing him, asking him again how many fingers there are. Winston: “Four. I suppose there are four. I would see five if I could. I´m trying to see five.” O´Brien: “Which do you wish: to persuade me that you see five or to really see them?”

While the person in question did not actually use electric shocks on me, our conversations followed the same logic. I couldn´t help but feel the way I did. I wasn´t allowed to keep that to myself. I was punished for what I felt. I was trying to feel what she wanted me to feel and she was suspicious even of that. Winston knows how to answer O´Brien´s last question. He wants to really see five fingers. I wouldn´t know how to honestly answer. Naturally, it would be easier to really see five fingers. You´d have nothing more to fear. I guess there comes a point where you would willingly lose your mind if only you could. But for as long as I believe there are four fingers, I couldn´t honestly want to believe something I believe to be false. In the context of being in the Ministry of Love, it makes a lot of sense to really want to see five fingers. In a better world, however, I´d always want to see four, and I couldn´t let go of the feeling that a world without Big Brother would be a better world.

I think that when a resilient person is faced with such totalitarian thinking, she will respond with cynical deference. She´ll say what they want to hear in a tone so that they believe it, and she´ll feel disdainful triumph when they do so. It is only possible, though, if they don´t already believe you are a heretic. If they believe that, you have no chance whatsoever. You are subjected to a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don´t situation, and then they add something panic-inducing to the mix. Physical pain, emotional pain, both works. The result is a state of constant stress, a sense of being trapped, feeling like you´re falling into an abyss of guilt, feeling like you´re incapable of doing or understanding the most simple things, the most basic human emotions, feeling like you aren´t really human yourself, more like an aberration, an abomination, feeling like you cannot do anything right and if you say so you´re accused of just not wanting to get things right.

In 1984, O´Brien´s aim is to “crush Winston down to the point from which there is no coming back”. I don´t know if things have proceeded that far in my case. I don´t know if there´s a coming back. “Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity.”

Not all of this is true for me. What is true, though, is that the constant sense of guilt, the feeling that on some hard-to-describe level I´m toxic and loveless has never left me. I´m still essentially demoralized, I don´t trust my own perception or thoughts or feelings; I feel like I have no right to have opinions about things. I always carry a certain amount of depression with me. I don´t know where I´d be if I hadn´t met my partner. And yet, in my new relationship, it becomes most visible how scarred I am. I operate under the presumption that I´m not a good enough girlfriend. I constantly fear to be found out in some way. I sometimes get a rush of panic when I think about this blog and all the stuff going on in my head which I usually never talk about, forget to talk about, wouldn´t know how to talk about. I shouldn´t have to worry, my girlfriend has the url, she could read this any time she wants. And yet when I think about what I write here compared to how much I share in conversations, everything seems to fall apart, everything seems to be a lie. When my girlfriend is in a bad mood, I think I have done something terribly wrong even when I know the real reason and I start to ruminate.

While I was still in that destructive relationship, I started to show physical reactions to the stress I was exposed to. I could feel my entrails turn to ice when I realized I had done something wrong. My pulse would suddenly go up and I felt an unbearable tension. I still get this when I fight with my new partner. Usually, I don´t even fight. I just try to find out what I have to apologize for. Even in relaxed, friendly situations such physical reactions can overcome me out of the blue. A couple of years ago we were talking and my girlfriend started a sentence about something she had noticed… I thought she meant something she had noticed about me, I believed to hear a change in her tone, and suddenly I was sitting there shivering with my teeth chattering, literally begging her not to say it.

This year, it will be eight years since that destructive friendship.

 

 

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