The Shame of Friendship

  UWP

I remember getting off a plane in Tuscon, AZ, in January 1993 to join my Up with People cast. One of the first persons I met was Tony from Puerto Rico. Trace from Canada, Linda from Washington, Catherine from Australia, and Roger from Switzerland became fast friends through Mic Groups. And so began a year of complete vulnerability and trust as 150-ish of us lived together on two buses as we traveled throughout the United States and Europe. We represented twenty-three different countries and were offered such exciting opportunities to experience life. We were a team of wide-eyed, young adults who were out to change the world. Yes, we fought as families do, but we relied on each other for physical, mental, and spiritual support. And even after our year of travel ended, the trust continued to flourish. Friendships that were formed so quickly and deeply, ones that were based on authenticity and not pretense, those are friendships that cross global distances to remain viable. I take pride in these relationships, and would not hesitate to call on them for help. I was pretty good at trusting people then—

About a decade ago, I formed a friendship with a woman to whom I regularly turned with my joys and insecurities in being a mom of an infant and a toddler, with questions about being newly diagnosed with a mental disorder, and with the painful truth in realizing that the extent of my father’s alcoholism meant that he wasn’t a big part of my boys’ lives. She provided a listening ear and medical explanations and advice, and there were many times I kept moving forward simply because she was behind me pushing me through. She and her husband became part of our family and we celebrated and cried together throughout life events. I trusted her with the people I loved most in the world. That’s why her eventual betrayal scarred me so deeply. Her and her husband’s chosen actions changed my entire family at its core. Her needs and wants trumped both ethics and loyalty, but unfortunately, I’m the one who seems to still carry around the shame of it all. If only I had not befriended her . . .

During the occurrence of this real-life soap opera, I turned to friends I worked with to help me navigate the unbelievable drama. More than anything, they simply listened and validated my feelings and concerns and reminded me that I was not the one causing the turmoil. Most of our time together was filled with laughter and storytelling, and we met both in and out of school so we could include our children in the fun. We handed down clothes and toys to each other, and I often looked to them for help with my children’s activities and programs. I considered each of them a surrogate care-taker of my boys. One time, I disappointed one of them with a flippant response to an issue I had unknowingly caused. I sincerely apologized after I was made aware and attempted to make amends, but she chose not to accept the apology and began her own form of adult bullying: belittling me with silent treatment, leaving rooms or groups when I entered, changing seats if I sat near her, laughing behind my back, questioning me professionally. Because I am aware that such childish behavior is actually her issue and not mine, I could have let it go. But my friends knew it was happening and watched silently. I guess a good manipulator can explain away questionable behavior. Their inaction embarrassed me even more than the bullying. Still, I trusted my friends and their loyalty and expected things to blow over with time. In the end though, they chose her and left me behind. My friendship wasn’t worth the effort of having to deal with what she may or may not do as a result of confrontation. Today I smile and make small talk, and I do think they genuinely care about me and my family. But the trust is gone, and I am ashamed that I let her ridiculous behavior affect my life at all. I’m stronger than that.

Two years after the silent treatment began, I found a new friend at school who reflected my more liberal beliefs in a very conservative part of the Greenville area. Her partner was expecting their third child, and some colleagues and I celebrated with her by giving her a mini-baby shower on the down low. She invited me and my family to their house for pool parties and family gatherings and was very quick to keep up with what was happening in all our lives. She and her family felt safe with us, and I felt like I had someone to turn to again. She helped me through some struggles at home, and she asked advice for some of her own. I attempted to help her work through professional struggles as well. Hindsight shows that I should have known better. When she was hospitalized for attempted suicide and immediately arrested upon release, her partner called me for help. I so desperately wanted to believe the world was out to get her because she was lesbian and not because she was a child molester. I was wrong. She used me and manipulated me into seeing things through her eyes. She sexually assaulted a fourteen-year-old girl.  The shame that has formed as a result of this friendship eclipses the others by far. Her abuse will affect one of our students for the rest of her life.  I trusted too easily and too blindly and will never be the same.

No longer do I trust until someone gives me a reason not to, instead I insist that people earn my trust. Not too many people do so, for I am well-protected by extremely high expectations. But I do get lonely sometimes.

I read part of a book recently that talks of the paralyzing fear and worthlessness in which shame dwells. The author says that the best way to unshackle yourself from controlling emotions such as shame is to confront them and speak of them out loud, acknowledging that we are all imperfect beings. Shame resilience, as she calls it, puts ego aside and doesn’t worry about others’ judging. That’s really hard! But I’m trying. So, here they are, a few of my stories.

 I’m not looking for pity or anger or “fix-it strategies” by writing this. I don’t want to hear anyone say, “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way!” I’m working on finding understanding of how I got the way I am. Of embracing the imperfections of my authenticity. Of disassociating friendship and shame. Of working my way back to a fuller, exciting life.

Trusting myself first. As a beloved child of God, I am born of faith, hope, and love – with no room for shame.

My Father’s Eyes

Daddy and FoMy Dad and I used to call it a “funk.” Nothing was especially wrong, but a deep sense of sadness pervaded life. I spent a lot of time inventing reasons for these episodes; if you look hard enough, this world offers a multitude of reasons for silent tears. I thought everyone did this! Just down in the dumps for days at a time. Days when I wanted to simply disappear. Daddy said he wanted to run away to nowhere. Shared thoughts that life would go on and be easier without us.

I don’t remember life without funks. Many times Daddy and I would recognize their occurrence and just say, “I get it” to each other. When he was dying though, his funks were deeper than even I could see. His eyes, though, had a distant desire to keep living – the irony was not lost. Through my eyes, I tried to remind him that I understood, and I hurt for him and with him. I fell to my knees, sobbed, and begged God to surround him with comfort and peace. I witnessed his beautiful blue windows transform into life preservers thrown over my kicking and flailing and pulled gently back toward me, calmly awaiting discovery, offering rescue. For a moment I stopped the frantic movements and rested in his love.

And I got it. I misread his desire to live. It wasn’t a wish to remain a part of humanity; he wanted me to. To share the unfathomable and everlasting love he was meeting face to face. To rest in its assuredness. To have faith. To always search out that one flame that can be used to light the world. To find hope. To hear the still, small voice over the wind, earthquakes, and fire of funks. To listen. To love. To live.

Metamorphosis

monarch in cocoon

When you feel worthless, as many sufferers of bi-polar disorder do, it’s comforting to lose yourself in any other world than the one in which you reside. A book, TV show, movie, an imaginary land – where you are anyone but the person you were created to be. No matter how many times someone, anyone, professes unconditional love for me, I hear them saying it only to the person I’ve chosen to show them. I know it’s part of the mental imbalance I’ve had all my life, but that disorder has shaped who I am over and over again.

In my earliest memories, I wanted to be someone else. I wanted to be Tammi because she was beautiful and got to sing the solo in “You are my Sunshine” in kindergarten. I wanted to be Ellison  because everyone always said hello to her, and Mrs. Lomas picked her to call the buses more often than anybody else. I wanted to be Gina  because she could read more books than anyone I knew. Molly  wore makeup in 7th grade. Brent  liked Holly , not me. Jody  was elected president of Chamber Choir; Mr. Morlan had to create “student director” for me. (I knew how to play the piano – I could lead the choir in warmups while he couldn’t.) Rebecca  was the pretty friend; I was the one who hung out with her. The girls didn’t want me in their sorority, and I was seen as “one of the guys” instead of someone to date. During my young adulthood, I was so desperate for outward approval that I learned to quickly adapt who I was according to my surroundings. I couldn’t miss an opportunity to impress! Consequently, I used this newfound talent to create a variety of different personas, and I rested in my ability to morph into what was “acceptable” among any present company. I was very good at it. I held my own at both the Greenville Country Club and at Bristol Speedway. I came home from visiting my in-laws in Michigan with a slight Midwestern accent. I prided myself in my quick changes; I was just listening for my cues to perform. As a result though, the authentic me kept getting pushed farther and farther inside. How would I ever keep up the façade of a strong, independent, worldly woman if I let my inner fragility show through?

Ana, you are a fearfully and wonderfully made child of God. Stand tall and proud and just be you. You are valuable and the world needs you. Don’t worry about what other people think because you have to be true to yourself even if they say otherwise.

So, how’d I do??   Phew! Now I think I can take a deep breath and face this beautiful day with a heart full of love and thankfulness for simply being given another day to appreciate all God has provided.

Ding, Ding, Ding – my bullshit meter just went off. She must still be in there somewhere.

Even now as I’m typing this I’m telling myself to get over it and leave the pity party behind. To be appreciative of what I have and where I am. But I am miserable and pitiful because the misfiring synapses of depression complicated by the deep grief of my father’s death have created an obstacle impossible to “get over.” My survival technique has mutated from living multiple personas to cocooning myself in other worlds, hoping for transformation. I keep digging inside looking for that lost soul, and I don’t even notice the others around me who keep trying to pull me back to them in whatever shape I offer. Some days I breathe only through selfishness and egocentrism and have not one gasp of air to share. And I hate that.

I am definitely hard to love sometimes.  But I am very humbled by those who continue to do so anyway. Thank you for sitting with me and waiting for the butterfly.

Always Keep Fighting

AKF

My name is Ana Quattlebaum Gibbs, and I think of myself as a pretty commonplace person. I’m a mother to two teenage sons. I’m a wife, daughter, sister, and aunt. I teach school. I go to a church that supports my ever-growing theology. I am addicted to escaping into the many worlds of Netflix. Not much to represent the somewhat unconventional woman I am. But if you could hear the clamor of the ideas and dreams in my head, you’d probably be overwhelmed. Personally, I love to sit and listen to them. They have been formed through family, faith, and mental illness.

I grew up in Greenville as the middle child in a family of five. My father was a physician and my mother, a clinical social worker. After college graduation, I traveled the US and Europe with a service and performance group, Up with People. (Yes, those people that always seem ridiculously happy – ironic, huh?) I began teaching after I returned home even though I had once sworn I’d never step foot in a classroom again (big thanks to my parents’ insistence of education certification along with my English major). I met Jim, my husband, soon after, and we became parents to Isaac and Forrester, and I drove a minivan (which I had also sworn I’d never do). It wasn’t until afterwards that my mental disorder was triggered.

In the fall of 2002 I regularly struggled to get out of bed. I was trying to be a stay-at-home mom for my two-year-old and nine-month-old. I knew that life had changed drastically, but I also knew that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t take care of my children. I couldn’t eat, wanted only to be alone, and felt like a failure at a life that so many others only dreamed of. My husband was my lifeline to the outside world, and his strength and faith carried me through it all. It would take ten years and a combination of therapy, doctor’s appointments, medicine, prayer, and intermittent emotional battling before being properly diagnosed and medicated. That decade held struggles that shaped who I am, and I soon realized that my experience may help others recognize signs of mental illness in a shorter timeframe. And that is why I choose to tell my story – too many people suffer without hope.  A promise of hope is something I want to share with others.

I get to know different sides of my students as a Drama/Speech teacher – no stress of making sure learners achieve a certain level academically. This gift brings freedom, and I have found that I can offer myself as a beacon for my many students who deal with anxiety, depression, and other disorders. When I struggle emotionally, I don’t hide it. When I hear of suffering, I offer my classroom as a respite during a trying day. I tell them to believe in tomorrow. To ask for help and never give in to their insecurities. And, in turn, I make a promise to them (and to you) – I will always keep fighting too.

First blog post

Between & Perplexed

I tend to try logic when I struggle with my illogical disorder. It seems to work in waves. I talk myself into stability and then, if I sit alone and think, the feelings and adrenaline return full force, requiring me to begin the entire process again. Sometimes I’m up for the challenge; sometimes I don’t have a choice but to push through; and sometimes I give in to the fallacy of my weakness and climb in bed. This pattern will never end in my lifetime; I know this to be true.

No one deserves this type of sickness any more than a person deserves cancer, or diabetes, or congenital heart disease, yet for some reason, mental illness seems to be portrayed as a condition that humans have the power to control and permanently cure through determination and faith. I guess it’s because the neurons that are firing incorrectly are not detectable on a CT scan. There are no visible symptoms. Only the sufferer is aware of its presence at all. And why should anyone believe what that person has to say? Isn’t she the one who was diagnosed as crazy in the first place?

Fortunately, both my mother and father are well-educated in the physiological causes and outcomes of my diagnosis, Bi-Polar II. The sharing of that knowledge has taught my husband and me that my struggles are not a sign of weakness – that the constant darkness reaching for my assuredness can be staved off if I follow the prescribed protocol. Take my medicine daily, go to therapy, and communicate with loved ones. Pray for strength, and glory in the assertion that God is with me always.

Once I temporarily resided in that cruel, overpowering sorrow. I saw the exit and cure right there within my reach. I prayed for God to pull me away from them, but God stayed right there with me as I inwardly screamed and outwardly sobbed and silently planned how to kill myself. I was completely surrounded by love, but my simplistic understanding of Agape was not a comfort. It offered no relief of my pain.

I wholly believed that once everyone got over the grief of losing me, the burden they carried by loving me would be lifted. Entering that cycle once again, my logic offered a wave of promise, and I clung to that lifeline, if only for the futures of my children. I didn’t want them to live out their lives knowing that their mother couldn’t find the strength to continue with hers. I asked for help and spent a week in a hospital accepting it. I have never once been ashamed of my decision, but I am still haunted by my journey there.

As humans, we are often self-absorbed enough to think that a suicide victim succumbing to illness means that we aren’t enough to live for. We focus on ourselves – how could she do this to me? In reality, I imagine that most victims would answer that question with this – what do you mean? I’m doing this for you. You don’t have to hold my brokenness together anymore. Go in peace.

I regularly turn to God when I search for courage and strength. I imagine myself as the sparrow being so tenderly watched. I sing for my supposed happiness. I fall. I get up. Or I’m helped up by those who understand. I wrap my arms around myself and sit still with a God that I logically know is with me, but I can’t presently feel.

I think God comes in waves too. I can sit on a mountain and feel God completely overwhelm my capacity to love. I can get so angry and hurt so much for a loved one that I doubt God’s reality at all. I can smile at the beauty of the ocean and the sound of children playing. I can sit in the midst of a deep depression and beg for escape and release.

And throughout it all, I discovered that blessings, or God’s simple presence, are chameleons. We’re not able to see that love clearly and may wonder if it’s even there. Yet God is forever in me and I am in God. God doesn’t hold my brokenness together. God surrounds every piece and becomes a part of it and waits for the pieces to assimilate and form a new shape. And when those fragments splinter again, God transforms anew. There is peace in despair and hope in rain. It comes in waves, but the ebb and flow is everlasting.

Ana Quattlebaum Gibbs 2015