Ever since watching Half the Sky, I’ve had the same question running through my head: what made those women, brutalized beyond imagination, so resilient?
My birthmother suggested that their resilience may be linked to the lack of expectations of women in third-world countries, and I think there’s something to this. Yes, feeling suppressed leads to a life of quiet desperation, but perhaps, when you are surrounded by people who are just as suppressed as you are, it’s a less entrenched desperation than the kind felt by marginalized people in first-world countries.
When I was in graduate school, my psychopharmacology professor theorized that the rise in antidepressant use has less to do with chemically-induced depression and more to do with existential depression. When you live in a culture in which everyone seems to be Keeping up with Kardashians but you, he asked, how could you not be depressed?
How the Dominant Paradigm Imprisons People
I took a Gang Awareness Training class led by a gang member who chose “not to act violently.” A triple Alpha female, she had been imprisoned three times, once for murder. When she was released the last time, she acquired a mentor who, she said, was the first person who saw something good in her. His belief in her inspired her to use her formidable leadership skills to create opportunity for people who felt there was nothing for them outside of gang culture.
She started a tattoo removal business, counseled gang youth, and educated white therapists on what it’s like to live in a world that tells you you’re nothing. She talked about what it was like to be pulled over by cops because of your skin color, what it was like to have no means of making a living other than selling drugs, what it was like to be be prohibited from getting a graduate degree or becoming a licensed therapist due to three felony convictions.
She talked about the depression and anger created by marginalization. Which is one reason she never “left” her gang. Her ‘hood was her world and if she left, she would lose her identity. She still hung out with her homies; she just chose not to sell drugs or shoot people. She became a living, breathing template for other gang members who wanted to live past twenty-five; if she could do it, they could too.
Detaching from the Outcome While Trying to Change It
Psychologist Marsha Linehan created DBT, a therapy that is a hybrid of Buddhist-based Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She believes that people who cut themselves and threaten suicide and binge on sex, drugs and food do so because they refuse to accept their situations. She teaches people that they are accepted for who they are. But part of who they are is crazy, because expecting life to be a way that it isn’t makes them that way.
To put it bluntly: you’re perfect the way you are AND you have to change.
Brittany, my brilliant borderline client, was hospitalized this week. Everyday leading up to the hospitalization was a big drama designed to capture everyone’s attention: saying she hid razor blades in her lady parts ( a lie); reading aloud Sylvia Plath-like poems romanticizing death then getting mad at being put on Observation; threatening to kill herself, then saying she didn’t want to kill herself. Finally, the psychiatrist had enough and called the PET team.
Brittany sat in my office, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. She was the happiest-looking suicidal person I’ve ever seen. She was all glowing and gussied-up, like she was heading to the prom.
Brittany loves the hospital and had been begging to go — then reversing her position and saying she didn’t want to go.
“Sometimes I want to kill myself, sometimes I don’t,” she told me. “You don’t understand how crazy I feel.”
“You don’t understand how crazy I feel,” I said. “You’re making the whole treatment team feel crazy. We’re stressed out all the time, wondering if you’re going to hang yourself or put razor blades in your vagina.”
“But this is where you are right now. You feel out of control because you’re fighting life. You need to learn to tolerate the bad feelings.”
Brittany smiled at me. I have money in her therapeutic bank and she knows I care about her, which is how I can get away with telling her she’s making everyone nuts.
“I completely understand why you want to kill yourself because so much of your life has been lousy,” I said. “But that’s no excuse to act crazy. How are you ever going to get married or hold a job pulling this kind of nonsense? Who will put up with you?”
She stood up and asked for a hug.
“I love you, Pauline.”
“I love you too. But knock off the crazy stuff. Use your coping skills.”
“Okay,” she laughed.
The PET team showed up after I left work. Staff told me she took off running down the hill. The Supervisor spent 20 minutes chasing after her before she finally stopped running and got in the ambulance.
You American Women
I read a story about the writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who traveled around the world interviewing women of different cultures about what they expected out of marriage. She spoke to a woman who lived in a village in Asia, and when she asked her this question, the woman looked at her like she was nuts. And she said something to the effect of:
“This is not even a question we ask ourselves. You American women expect so much of your men. We don’t look to our husbands to fulfill us. That doesn’t even occur to us. The men go off and do their thing, and we women have each other.”
Gilbert’s takeaway was that American women set themselves up to be unhappy in marriage, that we expect a partner and an institution to fulfill us, when that job is really up to us.
The Grass Isn’t Greener, It’s Just Different Grass
I think I made that line up. I hope I made it up, because I really like it. I say it to myself often, because I have spent so much of my life chasing after things that may have made me temporarily happy, but eventually the happiness wore thin, and I was left with the same existential mishigas that had made me restless in the first place.
It’s been a challenge, sitting calmly in my life the way it is. I never expected, when I met Prince Charming 20 years ago, that he would turn into Prince Machiavelli, and that I would spend my 40s fending off his machinations.
I never imagined that my exquisitely beautiful and charismatic toddler son would wind up in a school for troubled kids. I never imagined that a custody battle would decimate my nest egg, that my house would lose one-third of its value.
And yet…I have a husband who stuck by me through my post-divorce craziness, a daughter with a zest for life, a son who’s getting his act together, wonderful friends and family, a job, health insurance and a retirement plan. I have my health — knock on wood — and at 50, I am still a relatively hot tamale. And I have this blog, something that generates very little income, but which gives my life meaning.
In another country, to a woman who expects far less from life, I would be considered lucky.
So my question to myself is: if I accept that life didn’t turn out the way I planned, would I unload the albatross that weighs me down? Would I come to believe that my Less is More? And would suspending expectations bring more More — whether that’s tangible or intangible — into my life?
What about you? Do you know how to accept the things you can’t control and change the things you can?
Or do you hunt for greener grass?
What is your bottom line — things you absolutely need — for contentment?