There are some things people say that cut right to the quick, leaving you bruised and bleeding as though a cat-o-nine tails had just snapped your skin open. These are words so hurtful you can’t believe anyone would utter them, never mind that they are usually said by someone close to you, who knows you, and is supposed to care about you. What messes you up even more is that these words are supposedly said for your own good.
“Please tell me how those words are supposed to help,” you want
to say as your mind screams, but you are so shocked and upset you can’t talk.
This has, as you would expect, happened numerous times to me over the course of 39 years, but there is one instance that stands out vividly in my mind. The situation was this:
I was in my senior year in college, one year and one semester after my brain injury, about to take the final exam in Microeconomics, my last and hardest exam; feeling confused, scared, mistrustful and very mildly suicidal. One night, when I was driving home, I had felt like I was going to lose control of my car and drive into the ocean. I was so confused and scared that the next day I went to see the school psychologist; having decided that I was not yet ready to swim with the fishes.
I remember walking in and being met by a man who motioned me to a chair. I sat, and he asked me how things were.
“Terrible,” I said. “I’m flunking the last required course for my major.”
“Do you have any friends?”
In my mind I had no friends. I shook my head.
“I was head injured in a car accident,” I said, trying to make things clear so he could help me.
“Let’s forget about that. How’s your sex life?”
“What,” I asked, “is a sex life?”
“There’s your problem.”
“No. I was head injured in a car accident.” What didn’t he understand?
He looked at me, crossed his arms and said, “Let’s forget about that.”
I was dumbfounded when he said that, and I felt as though I was wasting my time. I got up and left the room.
Thus went my visit to the school psychologist; a pivotal moment for me because I realized that even the professionals couldn’t be counted on.
I left that office, fuming, upset, and even more confused about my place in the world and how I was supposed to find it.
I thought of going to see the Dean of Students to see if she had any suggestions. The previous year the Dean had promised me assistance if I had issues. However, there was a new dean and she just stared blankly at me and shrugged her shoulders as I explained my situation.
Being angry or upset might fill me with adrenalin and make me feel alive and vibrant, in a weird sort of way, but I knew I couldn’t waste my time or energy on something just because it made me feel good. Somehow, I had to rally and get past this, and I would have to do it on my own. I came up with a plan, which involved sleeping on someone’s couch for the last month of school so I could study late and not have to make the ten mile drive home in the dark.
Through this episode I eventually discovered some important things.
Number one: I was stronger, more resourceful and more self-reliant than I had given myself credit for. One way to look at it was I was kicked put of the nest and forced to fly on my own. When forced into things, I went beyond my own perceived limits.
Number two: with the psychologist’s words echoing in my mind, eventually I realized that they were not said in the spirit of meanness. Over time, I was able to see something in his words, some weird truth, hard as it was to accept that there was any truth at all in them. He was telling me something, not about what others thought about me, but how I should treat myself. I owed it to myself to try and see that, and get over the initial, emotional reaction, as it difficult as that may be. Most of the time people are actually trying to help us, even though, to us, it sounds like we are being attacked. People are going to say things, think things and express themselves in ways that we may not always like. The fact that we don’t want to hear it or react emotionally to it usually means we need to listen.
In this case the truth in the psychologist’s words were, “How long are going to blame everything on this for?” and, “Let’s take a closer look at this.” At the time I didn’t want to hear that, after all it was only two years after my accident.
But, how do you listen when someone seems to be attacking you? It’s very hard, and it’s even harder to be objective and read into their words, but we need to discard our old way of listening. Usually, when we feel we are being questioned or attacked, we react by making excuses. Of course, we think, “They aren’t excuses, they are reasons!!” We may not even realize how much we do it, or how quickly these things come from our mouths, and we certainly don’t consider other peoples’ reactions to OUR words; that they do get tired of hearing our reasons, and that, unfortunately, the way it works is that those closest to us hear these reasons the most.
I understand why we do this… it’s not like we want to blame stuff on our injury, but it just comes out of our mouth. In our mind, we are just being honest. After all, we were never like this before and we don’t understand why we are the way we are now. So we get emotional, and there is an element of self-righteousness in our response, as we think, “Oh my God, how could they say that, to me, of all people?”
Getting all huffy about what they say is our way of taking control of the situation, and is an obvious, although fruitless response. We feel hurt and indignant because we are programmed to interpret what people say a certain way. The trick is to put that aside and ask ourselves, “Is there anything I can learn from what they said? If I had chosen to get past my anger and frustration so that I could listen to that psychologist, as difficult as it was, and have a discussion with him, I might have learned some things, but instead, I chose to stomp out of his office.
You can learn, both from the other’s words, and from your own reactions.
When it got really hard, I wasn’t up to the task. Somehow I had to find a way not to react to his words, but look for the truth behind his words and in my own reactions.