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 readings run the gamut of ancient and contemporary teachings. Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. Currently we’re reading Donna Cameron’s “A Year of Living Kindly.”
To sum up the latter:
Being nice is easy (polite and pleasant) but being kind is hard, that is — going out of your way to help someone, especially people who aren’t easy to like.
Perhaps you invite the cranky neighbor or incessant complainer friend to lunch because you know that deep down they’re lonely, sad, angry or scared. You put yourself in their shoes. You suck it up and do the right thing.
You call your bigoted friend with a big heart who you repeatedly have to correct when she offhandedly refers to “those Jews.” You clean out the elderly neighbor’s garage even as she criticizes how you stack the boxes or sweep the floor.
No matter how excruciating, you listen to incessant complaining about the minutia of minutia of the minutia.
The point is — 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 relentless complainer or 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 often find ourselves grappling with what we’re each willing to put up with around people we love but who do some pretty crappy stuff. Boundaries, and all that.
Like everyone in my book club I believe that “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.
During 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 loved immensely). For years I thought I was semi screwed up and in turn I became 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. At some point when I was in Kindergarten Peggy met and fell in love with a married-with-children well-established world wildlife photographer while 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 elegant housewife and busy mother in a small upper-middle-class NJ suburb, to wearing Birkenstocks, camping across the African Plains and shooting spectacular pictures for National Geographic and the like.
I’m told for a short time after Peggy left that I stopped talking, which if you know me for five minutes isn’t something I’m known (my family nickname was “motor mouth”).
My father, a remarkably demonstrative man for his era, made it quite clear that he loved all his kids, although he admitted later in life that he was often 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 little thing, briefly mute, refusing Pat once told me, to hug back, my arms peeled to my side, in unconscious defiance, I guess, of ever getting close to another mother. My oldest brother Mark, I learned after his death in 2012, started using drugs in high school, possibly even heroin (more on Mark later). 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. Of all the kids 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 our kitchen aisle, their version of delightful 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 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 from the start.
As such, over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with high drama or difficult people is remarkably low. Not that sort of age-predicted “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 often in fights, narcissists, drama queens, those constantly incensed or in need of inexhaustible 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 got worse when he hurt his back after a fall while he worked on an oil rig in Arizona. Mark was a big bear of a guy, Paul Bunyan-like, brilliant with a wicked dark sarcasm. Even in the midst of peddling his worst addict lies, I laughed at his jokes and knew without question, that he loved his family. He once sent a letter to Pat, the 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 Mark 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 January 2012 my father’s third wife Mary, who I’d grown close from 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.
Shocked and gut-punched, I didn’t cry. Not then, not at his service, not once in nine years. I wasn’t angry at Mark anymore, I just grew numb to his lies and without consciously realizing it, numb to Mark.
At one point my brother 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 using 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.
A few years before prison, during one 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 flashed across the room, and his inevitable pronounced slur rolled in as he cranked up his brash humor, “So how the hell are you, Laura? Your patient husband sick of your bullshit yet?”
Despite my horror when Mark reached that level of intoxication, I still managed to laugh at his blunt comments. Because humor was stable, humor was who Mark was. Sober or otherwise.
But as the night went on he’d stir the pot. He’d lean back with his beer, smirk, then casually bring up issues between family members long forgotten or resolved. “So Laura you still pissed after that beach trip you guys had with Mary last year?” Because if Mark could dig up drama about someone else, the spotlight temporarily moved off the fact that he was drowning in his addiction.
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 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. When he walked inside he 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 how disgusted I was at his irresponsible behavior and pedophilic words about his niece. In his stewed brain my brother actually thought a pedophile joke 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 that night he gently asked if I was sure “I heard right.” What else can a father say as he’s trying to process the most reprehensible comment imaginable made by his son, about his grandchild, as told by his daughter?
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. A well-practiced cover-up by which Mark stockpiled pills from here to Mexico, courtesy of a rotation of more-than-willing doctors who back then, handed out pain killers like aspirin.
A small part of me felt sorry for Mark. I mourned his lost potential and the relationships he destroyed. He repeatedly broke my father’s heart and while in prison somehow caused a permanent rift with my middle brother for reasons I’m still unclear.
Once I became a mother, Mark-the-addict felt like an unintentional monster with a twisted sense of humor I no longer trusted. His filters were anesthetized, his sense of decency blurred by brain-thrashing opioids. I was vehemently protective of exposing my daughter to her uncle who although he clearly loved his niece, had mastered, as addicts do, deceit.
After prison Mark claimed he’d quit using drugs although I often heard the distinct faint slur, undetectable to anyone who didn’t know better. One morning in December 2011 he called to ask if he could visit in January. “You sound like you’re on something,” I told him right away. “I’m just really really tired. I even had to check myself into the hospital for exhaustion last week,” he claimed.
I told Mark that he could come 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 recently been fighting.
Mark agreed and said he’d email me his flight 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 once told him I admired (as well as his recent pursuit of a degree in pharmaceutical law which I found perfectly ironic).
Clearly my brother was more than just the “extremely difficult person” I mentioned earlier. He was an addict, menacing and toxic. I had to set clear unwavering boundaries or cut him off.
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 to simply be nice is a feat. It’s noble.
And yet we all come to this moment with a different history of emotional pain and family chaos. As a result our threshold for dealing with drama and difficult personalities, our boundaries, are wildly different.
For one person regularly interacting with an extraordinarily difficult person is a spiritual challenge to showing radical compassion. A challenge of character. If we show enough compassion, patience, love and understanding, in time, maybe that person will become less difficult.
But for others, inching away from extremely difficult people is how we protect ourselves from what feels threatening to our peace of mind.
I recall a woman who every time I saw her at a party, trapped at least one person for an hour or more to 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 of woe.
And while I genuinely sympathized because I think she was lonely and struggling, as well as a nice person, I didn’t want to go down the same Rabbit Hole every time. All her stories were stuck in victimhood, and any advice I gently suggested she politely but repeatedly dismissed. So after 15 or 20 minutes suddenly I’d need some more wine or a snack. And off she went to find a new sympathetic ear.
If we ran into each other when I walked my dog, I’d smile, say a brief hello then keep moving down the sidewalk like I was in a rush, enthusiastically waving goodbye as I said “Have a great day!” She wanted to talk, I wanted to escape.
Boundaries, I’ve come to realize, can be explicit or implicit. “If you do drugs when you come to my house, you’re out” is explicit. Inching down the sidewalk while you smile and wave goodbye to a chronic complainer is implicit. 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.
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 pain of the snarly, hostile, impatient, cranky and critical, while also setting boundaries, like for instance, reminding The Difficult Person that cursing out the cashier or saying the n-word isn’t okay.
Personally I’ve forgiven myself for why, even if I extend a small kindness to a difficult person, a visit, a meal, that I need to bid that person goodbye before I get sucked in for the long haul. And frankly, maybe she’s bored with me anyway. Likely I won’t expand our 15 or 20 minute conversation into making any future plans. I’ll be polite, brief and vague.
Because what sounds like selfishness on my part, is protecting myself from excess exposure to certain kinds of people. So I extend one foot in the door, while I gently pull the other foot out. It’s the best I can do. Correction, it’s the best I choose to do.