When I was a teenager my best friend had six siblings, mostly younger than her. One day a van load of us returned to her house to find her youngest brother, 9 or 11 years old at the time, in tears because he had found himself suddenly home alone for half an hour and didn’t know where everyone had gotten to. He was beside himself and everyone rushed to reassure him that he hadn’t been forgotten about, that it was merely a brief and unhappy coincidence that he had been alone for so long.
Logically I could understand how a child from such a large family could feel frightened by the sudden and rare silence of an empty house. Logically I could understand the fear of having been possibly left out of something exciting that everyone else knew of. What I could not understand, though, was his basic sadness at having been simply alone, and everyone else’s readiness to console him about it.
In fact, it made me feel violently disgusted, scornful and enraged – completely out of proportion to the actual situation.
This might be a good time to point out that I’m not normally a person given to violent fits of disgust, scorn, or rage. I generally try to understand where people are coming from, and often succeed, and this renders me usually even-tempered at worst, and joyfully content at best. The vast majority of the time I feel great. And kind and patient towards myself and others.
But, ok, so, there I was at my best friend’s house, silently seething, in the full-on throes of a powerful knee-jerk reaction to the emotional outpourings of this little boy, and his loving family’s kind and reassuring response. And the tiny crumb of my mind that wasn’t occupied with profound loathing and condescending disbelief said, “Um, Anna, this is crazy. Your reaction to this is out of control. This has to be about something else.”
But I couldn’t believe it – I couldn’t believe this kid – The angry righteousness in me told the tiny reasonable part of my mind that a child his age should be fully capable of understanding that no one would actually forget him for anything important, that people would come home soon, that he should just wait patiently and properly, and be capable of occupying himself for half an hour, happily. Even for an HOUR happily! For TWO hours happily!! Why not FIVE?? What the frack’s the matter with this kid, was he dropped on his head? Is he feeble minded?? They need to do something proactive with him, because he’s actually ill or dangerously stupid if he’s this upset by being alone for what amounts to TWO SECONDS. Like, there’s actually something WRONG WITH HIM. WHY IS EVERYONE JUST HUGGING AND BEING NICE TO HIM?? Why, I’ve had to wait alone for my mother to get home every day since I started school, I told myself! When I was younger than him, my broke and exhausted mother would sometimes go out to a party and just leave me at home, unable to get a babysitter, and I was happy to be able to stay up later than anyone else my age and watch grown-up TV! Sure, my happiness quickly faded to terror, sure I’d remain for hours in the same curled position on the couch, terrified of getting off or letting my legs dangle, lest the monster or ghost under it grabbed my ankles. Sure, if I couldn’t suppress my need for the bathroom for another minute, I’d bargain—if I make it to the bathroom in less than ten steps, I won’t be murdered tonight. If I make it back to the couch before the toilet stops flushing, I’ll be safe (until the next time I have to get up, that is.) Sure, my muscles were stiff by the time my mum returned to our apartment, but I… I…
Ah, see now, there it is, hey?
I stared at my friend’s crying kid brother and knew: I was upset because he felt allowed to voice his feelings and needs, and everyone else just listened and easily gave him what he asked for.
How earth shattering for someone who had thought it was really really important to not require anything from anyone. Whose default is to hunker down and endure because that’s how you survive. I was upset because it wasn’t fair. Because the unpleasantness that I had taken seriously and endured as a matter of life-and-death survival was simply unnecessary for other people.
A year or two later I was stunned again when, riding in the back seat of a friend’s car, the person next to me asked the driver to turn the music down a little. I stared at my seatmate in frank disbelief. You can just DO that? Ask people to make the annoying thing go away, and they do? Holy crap. This changes everything. I had been wasting valuable time being compliant.
So I understood pretty young that I get mad when other people don’t put up with what I put with. The harder it was to suffer through, the madder I get. And I understood that I have an unusually strong habit of passivity and acceptance.
They say understanding is the first step to change, but old habits die hard.
In a way it’s nice. I get to remember, to my pleasure, over and over, that I can actually ask for things, or actually shape my life to small degrees.
Of course, remembering also means that a period of time has gone by where I’ve forgotten this valuable truth.
Yesterday, a narrow escape: a day off, morning spent reading, late breakfast in the early afternoon, and as a result, wonky blood sugar for the day, leading to pangs of despair. I’ve been alone for days, G’s away, and by the end of the day I felt piercingly lonely and shack-whacky. I wanted human company so badly. It was 8:30, though, and my neighbours go to bed early. The thought of anesthetizing myself in front of some bad TV made me feel even nuttier. I didn’t know what to do. Two friends didn’t answer their phones.
So I went to my neighbours anyway, said, “Hey you guys, are you on your way to bed yet? Do you want to have a quick cup of tea? I’ve been alone for two days and suddenly feel like a mute alien. Wanna chat?”
They laughed and let me in. I felt like a new woman.
I needed company, asked for it, and got it.
I can actually do things.