Over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with drama is remarkably low. Not that sort of “oh I’m getting older and less patient” low. I mean that chaotic people who seem to live for chaos make me intensely uncomfortable.
The last couple years I’ve been part of a spiritual book club at my Unitarian Universalist church. Now with COVID we meet through Zoom.
Our reading choices run the gamut of ancient and contemporary teachings. Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. Currently we’re reading “A Year of Living Kindly.”
To sum up the latter:
Being nice is easy (polite and pleasant) but being kind is harder, that is — going out of your way to help someone, especially people who aren’t easy to like.
What this means is that you invite the lonely grouch to lunch. You bring a meal to the blatantly bigoted nasty friend. You clean out the elderly neighbor’s garage even as she criticizes every step. You listen to their incessant complaining, even about the minutia of minutia of the minutia.
The point of the book is that kindness takes time, energy, courage and infinite patience.
I take great pains to avoid spending too much time with extremely difficult people: the racist relative, the self-centered high maintenance friend, the incessant complainer and critic, the snobs, blowhards and narcissists, all people you might like well enough in small doses, but who are generally a pain in the ass.
During book club we also find ourselves grappling with what we’re willing to put up with people we love who do some pretty crappy stuff. Boundaries, and all that.
But frankly who am I to decide what one person should or shouldn’t put up with? Unless someone is being abused, then I can’t keep my mouth shut.
How my childhood informs my tolerance for difficult people and drama
Like everyone in my book club I think “to love” is better than “to hate,” and that to forgive is better than to resent someone forever. But unlike many in my group, I find myself exploring these topics less from a spiritual point of view, and more from a psychological one.
In college I majored in psychology mostly as a reflex to growing up in a somewhat dysfunctional family (to no one person’s fault I might add, and I was very loved). For years I thought I was semi screwed up and in turn I was obsessed with why I was the way I was (anxious, insecure, the quintessential people pleaser) and — with why humans sometimes treat each other in the most despicable ways.
My father and his first wife Peggy adopted me when I was a few months old. During Kindergarten Peggy met and quickly fell in love with a married-with-children well-established world wildlife photographer while she was on a bird-watching cruise to the Seychelles.
From her brief affair, my mother immediately left my father and five kids and never came back. She forged an exotic life away from being an elegant housewife and busy mother in a small upper middle-class NJ suburb, to wearing Birkenstocks, camping on the African Plains and shooting spectacular pictures for National Geographic and the like.
I’m told for a short time after my mother left that I stopped talking, which if you know me for even five minutes isn’t something I’m known to do (my family nickname was “motor mouth”).
My father, a remarkably demonstrative man for his era, made it quite clear that he loved his kids, although he admitted later in life that he was much too harsh with my out-of-control brothers. A single working dad commuting an hour into New York City every day, raising a brood of five bereft children, despite family therapy and a grandmotherly nanny, is in the end, up against too much not to lose it from time to time.
Two years after Peggy left my father remarried. His second wife Pat was a remarkable and resilient woman who brought with her, two wonderful boys from her first marriage. But by the time Pat came to the rescue there wasn’t much she could do to repair what Peggy destroyed.
I for instance, was a nervous bird, briefly mute and refusing Pat once told me, to hug back. My oldest brother Mark I learned after his death in 2012, started using drugs in high school, possibly even heroin (more on Mark later). And at least once he called Pat a c….t which isn’t exactly the foundation for the Brady Bunch.
My middle brother John, a sweet anxious smart introvert, battled a stutter, and my youngest brother Chris was picked up by police for selling drugs near a sub shop and hiring a prostitute. My sister appeared the most unscathed although I realized later in life, that wasn’t the case.
I have vague memories of the boys (probably not John) rolling dog food cans at our kitten down the aisle of our kitchen, their version of “hilarious” cat bowling. This was likely one step past “boys will be boys,” like when Chris lit firecrackers inside sunfish from our pond while my parent’s party guests looked on – and into behavior that teetered on sociopath. Seven years after my father and Pat married, they got divorced, a marriage for many reasons, was destined to fail.
Over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with drama is remarkably low. Not that sort of “oh I’m getting older and less patient” low. I mean that chaotic people who seem to live for chaos make me intensely uncomfortable. Sensing the faintest whiff of high maintenance (e.g. people always in fights, narcissists, drama queens, constantly incensed or in need of excess attention) I will ever so politely back away until our interaction is seamlessly next to nothing.
My brilliant, funny, addict brother
My brother Mark’s opioid addiction grew worse after he hurt his back from a fall while working on an oil rig in Arizona. Mark was a big bear of a guy, Paul Bunyan-like, brilliant with a wicked dark sarcasm. I always knew he loved the family even in the midst of peddling his worst lies. He once sent a letter to Pat, the very same woman he battled and called the c-word, to thank her for taking care of me and my sister after Peggy left.
For years he worked as a public defender and later in private practice with a partner who I can’t fathom how he managed to keep his practice afloat while dealing with Mark’s obvious addiction. Still, his partner kept him on until it got so bad that despite repeated warnings, he had no choice but to turn Mark into the Bar, who after a review, revoked Mark’s law license.
One afternoon in December 2012 my father’s third wife Mary who I’d grown very close the moment we met, called and told me “You won’t believe this, but Mark’s dead.” An autopsy revealed that my brother died from opioids and advanced arteriosclerosis.
While I was gut-punched I didn’t cry. Not then, not at his service, not once in eight years. I wasn’t angry at Mark anymore, but over time I grew numb to his lies and without realizing it, numb to Mark.
At one point in his addiction he was so far gone that during a flight home from Orlando after visiting (when during lunch with my toddler by my side and Mark’s client across from me in a booth, Mark slurred the whole time) the pilot had to make an emergency landing in Houston. Apparently Mark’s seatmate tried to wake him so he could navigate around his body to go to the bathroom, but Mark was unconscious.
“Your son’s a big guy,” the ER doctor told my father and Mary, “anyone else with this level of alcohol and opioids in his system would be dead.”
Mark eventually landed in prison after three DUI’s (a felony in Arizona). Incarceration kept him alive for a while and when he got out he was sober. In time he started taking drugs again, then entered multiple re-habs paid for by my father and Mary. Ultimately Mark settled into using opioids at a level just low enough to fake being sober and function in society.
Years before he went to prison, during a Christmas visit to my house, after a few beers and whatever drugs he took that day, as usual Mark’s eyes rolled to the back of his head, the whites flashing across the room, and the inevitable pronounced slur rolled in as he amped up his crass humor, “So how the hell are you, Laura? Your patient husband sick of your bullshit yet?” Despite being horrified once he reached that level, I always laughed at his blunt comments.
Humor was stable, humor was who Mark was, sober or otherwise.
But as the night wore on, he’d stir the pot. He’d bring up issues about family members long forgotten or resolved. Because if Mark could dig up drama about someone else, the spotlight temporarily moved off him.
One night during a Christmas visit while everyone ran around cooking dinner in our crowded kitchen, setting tables, TV blaring, music on, without asking Mark took my toddler daughter for a night walk on the golf course behind our house. It was only for five minutes, but neither my husband nor I knew he took her, or that perhaps in the flurry of dinnertime activity, distracted, someone told him he could take her.
I ran to the backyard, intercepted Mark and asked where the hell he’d been. As he walked inside he casually announced that he’d “hoisted Taylor on his shoulders to take a walk and with all that bouncing that she probably had her first orgasm.” Then he roared laughing, oblivious to my disgust at his irresponsible behavior and pedophilic words about his niece. In his stewed brain he actually thought he was funny. I wanted to kill him.
I never sensed any inappropriate looks or behaviors towards our daughter, but from that moment my husband and I never allowed Mark alone in the room with her. When I told my father what Mark said, he gently asked me if I was sure “I heard right.” My father wasn’t trying to discredit me, he was trying to process the most reprehensible comment, made by his addict son.
These were the years when Mark mysteriously needed to “get on my computer” to “check his emails” and then ask me to drive him to the nearest drugstore. This was the well-practiced ruse by which Mark stockpiled pills from here to Mexico. He found a rotation of more-than-willing doctors to hand out pain killers for his back.
A small part of me felt sorry him. I mourned his lost potential and the relationships Mark destroyed. He repeatedly broke my father’s heart and while he was in prison somehow caused a permanent rift with my middle brother for reasons I’m still unclear.
Once I became a mother Mark felt like an unintentional monster with a twisted sense of humor I could no longer trust. I was vehemently protective of exposing her to a drug addict, to an uncle who although he clearly loved his niece, had mastered, as addicts do, deceit.
After prison Mark claimed he’d quit using although I always heard the distinct faint slur, undetectable to anyone who didn’t know better. One morning in 2012 he called and asked me if it was okay if he came to visit. “You sound like you’re on something” I told him right away. “No I’m just really really tired. I even had to check myself in to the hospital for exhaustion,” he claimed.
I told him he could visit but that he better not be on drugs, because I’d know. Nor could he stay with me or create drama with our stepmom Mary who’d he’d been fighting. I didn’t want my daughter exposed to any of that toxicity.
Mark agreed and said he’d email his travel information. A few weeks later he was found dead on the community pool deck at his condo after a night hike in the hills, a new habit I’d told him I admired (as well as his recent pursuit of a degree in pharmaceutical law which I found perfectly ironic).
Our emotional pain tolerance
Clearly my brother Mark was more than just the “extremely difficult person” I mentioned earlier. He was an addict. He was menacing and toxic.
Difficult people on the other hand, are merely a thorn in our side. An inconvenience, annoying, insulting or exhausting. To extend acts of kindness to difficult people rather than simply being nice is noble.
But each of us comes from a different place of emotional pain history, and so our threshold, our boundaries, are wildly different.
For one person regularly interacting with an extraordinarily difficult person is a spiritual challenge to showing radical compassion. If we show enough compassion, patience, love and understanding, in time, maybe that person will be less difficult.
But for others, inching away from extremely difficult people is how we protect ourselves from what feels threatening – real or perceived.
The best I can do with extremely difficult people is to smile, to be polite, to listen for a bit. What I probably won’t do is establish a close relationship and spend lots of time with them. Not so kind — I know.
I recall a woman who used to live nearby who every time I saw her at a party, trapped at least one person for an hour or more so she could recount tales of her downtrodden life. Nothing good, nothing positive despite clear evidence to the contrary, only the world stomping on her at every turn, big or small, real or perceived, past or present — every tale was of woe.
And while I genuinely sympathized because I think she was lonely, I didn’t want to go down the same Rabbit Hole every time we met. So after 15 or 20 minutes suddenly I’d need some more wine or a snack. And off this woman went to find to find a new sympathetic ear. If I saw her when I walked my dog usually I’d just smile, say a brief hello and keep moving along like I was in a rush. Again, I was nice, but not kind.
We can create boundaries with people implicitly or explicitly. “Do drugs while visiting then don’t bother visiting” is explicit and a must, unless we want to enable. Inching away down the sidewalk while smiling and waving goodbye to the chronic complainer is an implicit boundary and a personal choice. It says, hey I want to be polite, but I’m not investing too much of myself into you.
Boundaries are how we teach people to treat us, and how we decide to treat ourselves. There’s no hard and fast rule here. Boundaries are intuitive.
I know people willing to spend far more time with extremely difficult people than I am. I admire that. These people are saints. They reach into the lives of the most challenging over and over and over. They bear the brunt of snarly, hostile, impatient, cranky and critical, while also setting boundaries.
But I also understand why even if I extend an act of kindness to someone, perhaps deliver a meal or run an errand for a difficult neighbor or acquaintance, that I must bid that person goodbye before I get sucked in for too long.
I must, to protect my emotional sanity, extend one foot of grace in the door, while I ever so gently pull the other foot out.