Nonlinear Equations (July 24, 2014)

Several years ago, my therapist gave a name to the lifelong inability to express myself coherently in the midst of tense, impassioned conflict – “emotional flooding.” When pressured to engage with a loved one/nemesis (sadly, often one in the same during childhood) in situations where I could not possibly be heard (not that I could find the words anyway), where no good could come from the discussion, I’d become panicked and hysterical, triggering an immediate, disturbed flight response. In addition to these episodes leaving me feeling crazy as a loon, it’s safe to say that the reaction was decidedly unhelpful in resolving the struggle. You can’t really negotiate with someone howling in pain behind a locked door. But you can’t continue tormenting and bullying them either. I guess that was really the subconscious point.

Hundreds, if not thousands of hours of individual and group therapy later, I’ve come to understand the pattern and how to avoid it – for the most part. Step one involved cutting the toxic people from my life, or if not feasible, sharply reducing interactions with them. This was a long process, one that also involved replacing those dysfunctional relationships with healthier, more fulfilling ones. As I review the long list of people with whom I regularly interact and communicate today, each and every one, without exception, adds fun, meaning and love to my world. None of these people are perfect and I’ve not emerged from the chrysalis a symmetrical butterfly either. But we misfit in harmony.

Step two required me to get to know the warning signs before an emotional flood: the flushed face, the racing heartbeat, the rapid fire negative thoughts, a growing sense of dread and alarm. Now when such symptoms are triggered, I am far more successful at backing away slowly, rather than precipitously, and asking the other party for a timeout. When I’m deliberate with my responses, I come closest to saying what I actually mean. This has always served me well as a writer, so it stands to reason that the principles apply to other forms of communication.

The final step was learning how to reapproach the subject and the individual without aggression, despair or a sense of persecution. “I love and you and I don’t want to fight with you. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to articulate my feelings better earlier, but I’m ready now if you’re willing to listen.” Two simple sentences have taken so much tension out of so many conversations. Or not. And when they don’t, I walk away. Not in panic or fear but with the confidence that I’ve done all I can to facilitate a rational discussion, laced with something like pride in acquitting myself decently. I’ve come a long way.

But personal progress is nonlinear, as Dr. T is fond of saying. And recently I experienced a minor setback with a dear friend. We had a misunderstanding and frankly, I shouldn’t have picked up the initial call. I was walking up the driveway to an extended family party: late, flustered and somewhat apprehensive. The sledgehammer symbolism of regressing on the property of my kin could not escape me.

I knew what this friend and I were going to discuss and it deserved a longer, calmer conversation. This is a clear loved one, definitely not a nemesis hybrid. I felt the flood coming, too late to do anything to stop it. Thus what should have been, “Can we talk about this later when I’ve had some time to think?” became, “I’m sorry you don’t like or accept me for who I am!” I promptly disconnected the call, utterly sorry and ashamed but with no time or bandwidth to address it immediately – which was probably for the best.

Though my behavior left the impression that I’d stepped into a time machine and traveled back to 2008, the ongoing work I’ve been doing in Al-Anon reminded me that there is no situation that can’t be improved, and I always have choices to make. Yes, I’d blown it. But I could also keep quiet for a couple of days and return to my friend with a mea culpa and a fresh dose of perspective.

Thankfully, as mentioned above, I now have people in my life who understand human error and forgiveness. I’m no longer held to impossible external standards by anyone, which in and of itself encourages reengagement and keeps fear of rejection in check.

Conversation number two went infinitely better than the first. Mistakes were owned and apologies were offered on both sides, as were assurances of love and friendship. It’s my belief that both of us left feeling understood and appreciated, and that particular misunderstanding is unlikely to recur.

But there will be other hiccups with other people. And I won’t get it right everytime. But I’ll get it better, in my own looped and rounded manner.

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