Story Construct Dialog Mind

Yesterday I went to my mother’s–formerly my parents’, but since my father’s death she has erased every trace of him, except the works of art that she either likes or keeps for their value, I don’t know which–to take a shower.  I avoid going there now, if she is at home.  There is always some kind of unpleasantness, because she resents the fact that I avoid her.

On Thursday she had forwarded me an email from a former student of my father’s.  It turns out that unbeknownst to me, the professional organization of ceramic artists of which he was a founding member had, at their annual meeting not long ago, given a touching memorial presentation dedicated to my father’s life.

The email contained a series of photos of the memorial, with a transcript of the speech.

I was flabbergasted that I had not been invited.  I would have turned myself into a pretzel to get there.

So I asked my mother why we had not been invited.

“Your memory!  Your memory is so terrible!” she shouted.  This has become a refrain that I hear every time she forgets to tell me something.  “My memory.”  Always “My memory.”

I confronted her.  I told her she was gaslighting me, trying to pass off anything she hadn’t told me as “my memory,” so that hopefully (her hope) I would believe that it was in fact “my memory,” that I am “losing it,” that the only truth is her truth and that I am a helpless, powerless imbecile with a bad memory.

I suggested that perhaps this was her story about me, and it might not be entirely accurate.  This sent her off on a tirade about how she and my father had always given me everything, etc.;  which somehow did not seem to be connected with my memory, but with a memory of her own.  And I know which one.

So I asked her why she thought I had left home at the age of 16.

My purpose was not to drag out old arguments, but to engage in meaningful dialogue which might lead to a discussion of how memory works, and how we sometimes make constructs out of our memories, especially painful ones, or ones we’d rather forget.

“Because we wouldn’t let you smoke pot in your room!  And every time I took you to buy clothes and nothing fit (because I was a bit chubby at puberty), you wouldn’t get anything until you lost weight!”

I don’t know what my weight had to do with my running away, since she never noticed I had become anorexic as a result of her calling me “Fat Ass” and teasing me about needing a girdle, but that is another story.  And the pot–frankly, mother, I didn’t give a damn whether she did or did not approve, although I dreaded my father’s lectures on the inevitable downfall of the Pothead.  As for her explosions of expletives, they were just more of the same.

Stories.

We all have stories, especially those crafted by memories of childhood events: “I was up in the tree and this boy pushed me out and I broke my arm.”  So every time this boy’s memory comes up, so does the story about the episode of the tree.  That is a normal story, filed away in our mind, solid in our neural net.

And then there are constructs, where memories trigger not only a picture of what happened, but also a fixed theory of why they happened.  These are often accompanied by some sort of positive or negative judgement:

“Oh, So-And-So.  She was an out-of-control drunk.  She used to get pissing drunk and slash her husband’s paintings with a knife.  That’s why he left her, you know.”

I know that if I mention So-And-So, or her husband, or even their children, I will get exactly the very same barrage quoted above, verbatim, as if from a factory package, from episode to episode.

Likewise if I try to engage in dialogue about events of my childhood, I am shouted down by her yelling me her constructs.  If I ask permission to add my own perception, my childhood neural memory snapshot of what happened, I am scolded that that is intrinsically not true.  Only her construct is true, and my story has no truth in it, and is of no value.  It is only made up in defiance of authority.

She often asks me why I never tell her anything.  So this time I venture out on a limb and say, “If you want to know why I never tell you anything, this is why.”

“Why?  Because I’m telling you the truth and you don’t want to hear it?” She challenges, in a childish “nah-nah-na-boo-boo” voice.

“Because,” I try to keep my voice even and fail, end up shouting, “Because every time I try to share something with you it gets thrown right back in my face.”  I didn’t start crying.

“That is not true,” she counters, icy voice.

“It is true.  Next time it happens I will point it out.”  Psychology 101.

“You just do that!”  Conversation over.  If you can call that a conversation.

I change the subject.  She is angry about that.  Fuck her.

I engage her in a project that needs doing.  It takes up several hours.  Then, at last, I spend a blissful half hour in the shower, grateful for the new water well–previously it was spring water and one had to take 5 minute showers–and the on-demand hot water heater.

Refreshed and not caring, I descended the spiral staircase into the lower living space.  She was waiting for me.

“You know,” she said sheepishly, “the reason I didn’t tell you about the memorial is that the organization expected us to pay our own way, including the $500, $600 admission fee.”

“Oh,” I said, ignoring the fact that my memory had just been restored, “That’s horrible!  What nerve!  I can’t believe they would do such a thing!”

As I gathered my things and exited, she looked at me wistfully and said, “Good Shabbos.”  It was Friday night.  When Dad was alive, I always made them dinner on Friday nights.  I tried to do it a couple of times with just my mother, but found it too awkward, since there was nothing to say.  So I stopped.

“Oh,” I lied.  “I thought it was Thursday.  Guess I lost a day.  Good Shabbos to you!”

I got in my car and drove back to my little house on wheels, tears burning my vision.

You’re Too Sensitive

How many of you have heard those words directed at you, from someone who is supposedly close to you?  A parent?  A sibling?  A Bestie?  A life partner?

I’ve heard that a lot from my immediate and extended family, and from lovers and friends too.  And all it means is that…”You need to grow a thicker skin,”  as my mother would say, when I sat crying over some stabbing remark from a school bully, or a school chum, or a teacher.

A thicker skin, so that their barbs would not penetrate my naked soul.

My excellent psychiatrist reminds me often: “Some people have sensitive stomachs.  Some people have sensitive lungs.  And some people have sensitive brains.”

For what is mental illness but an extra-sensitivity of the brain?

We perceive so sharply, we feel so deeply, that at times it drives us over the edge, becomes intolerable.  Sometimes we see things other people can’t see, hear things other people can’t hear.  Does this mean those things don’t exist?  Or are they scenes and voices of the Other Side of the Curtain that usually separates our present consciousness from what is, in some philosophies, said to be an alternative plane of existence that parallels ours.

Jewish oral tradition teaches that there are many such parallel universes, and that there is a thick curtain that divides our world from theirs.  On the other side of the curtain are angels, demons, creatures that we have no way of understanding.  If that curtain were to weaken so that human beings could perceive what was on the other side, we would instantly go mad, because our brains have no tools for integrating such phenomena, which are completely outside our human capacities.

What if a person’s brain was so sensitive that the curtain, for them, became thin, and they could perceive a tiny bit of what lies behind it?  What if, seeing that this person was so sensitive, beings from the other side were able to see him also?  A collision of worlds would ensue.  The deafening pounding on the Doors of Perception (Huxley) would be intolerable, and might cause what we call illness, madness, insanity.

Even in the absence of such a foray into the mystical, a sensitive brain will perceive subtle nuances that others will not even notice: a tone of voice, a disdainful glance, a rolling of the eyes, a certain walk and posture–all of these have meaning, but not all of us are aware.

Some of our brains are sensitive to the weather.  My mood changes if a cloud briefly covers the sun.  Some are bothered by the cold, others by heat.

Our sensitivity to our own feelings extends into the social realm, especially.  Some of us feel unstable and panicky when alone, and comforted in the bosom of friends and family.  Some are exactly the opposite.  For instance, the first thing I do when going to a club or restaurant when I’m with other people is to identify the rear exit, in case I need to make a quick escape.  I can deal with people one-on-one if they interest me, but if I find nothing to grab onto I will start feeling desperate to get away within a short time.  Likewise with parties, I have made a deal with myself that I will stay for one hour, no more, and sometimes less if the people are too loud for my brain, literally or figuratively.

Sensitive people are the pioneers, the innovators, because “out of the box” is our middle name.  We don’t have to force new ideas out of our brains.  Our brains teem with innovations, inventions, revelations of the intimate structure of existence.  Our main challenge is to put those new concepts into action, because our brains are not always gifted with marketing skills.  Some, like Steve Jobs, are brilliant promotors of their products: I believe one has to have a certain measure of grandiosity to take an idea out of its cradle and present it to the world in a package that is easily understood, a package that fills a void in some way.

For some of us, our extra-sensitivity is nothing but painful.  It is too invasive.  It disrupts every aspect of our lives.  We cannot function with it.  But neither can we get away from it, shed it like some extra (thin) skin, because we were born this way.  At best, we can learn to manage it, often with the aid of medicines and therapy.  At worst, it kills us.

If given a chance, would I give up my sensitivity?  No.  But I would modify it in the Jobs direction, except without the volatile and sometimes unpleasant temperament.  That might be too much to ask, but if given the chance, why not go all out?

Then, would people still say, “You’re too sensitive?”  I doubt it, because “success” makes other people smile and nod and want to get close to you.  The smell of success is sweet.

But if, like me, your sensitivity has been too much, and success in the accepted sense of the world has slipped away, then once again one is liable to hear the old refrain:

“You’re too sensitive.”