Friedman once accused me of using my friends as lab rats, making them unwitting participants in my lifelong psychological experiments. All of us here are lab rats, to some extent, as we can see by looking around at the peculiar setup we find ourselves in. Most of us, as we live and learn, calibrate the amount of grief we are prepared to accept from those closest to us in this ongoing, partially voluntary, experiment.
Since this giant and supremely predictable lab mouse Mark is no longer with us, I am drafting him to stand in for all those who, by their often self-destructive actions, give the rest of us clues and insights into why we act the way we do. In the end I can see that Mark’s tragedy was set in motion by the emotional challenge we all face: the eternal mammalian need for love in a world where everyone dies in the end. Mark’s painful life was ruled by his inability to find and return the love he needed to thrive. It’s a kind way to put it, perhaps, in the case of a supremely self-centered rodent who could never accept the love he needed (none was ever perfect enough, sadly), but I can now see clearly that his doomed quest to love and be loved shaped his painful life nonetheless.
After I told a friend part of a long, sad story of a badly frayed old friendship, languishing on a ventilator, she sent me one of her longtime psychiatrist’s rules. Rule Twelve reads:
A lesson is repeated until it is learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.
I can see quite clearly now, in light of this rule, that I spent my early teens into my thirties (and sometimes much later– as the recent case of my old friend X illustrates) facing the same unlearned lesson. I repeated the same primal scenes over and over with a cast of characters, dear friends all, who were uncannily like my difficult, defensive father in psychological make-up. In the individual cases, I was eventually able to see the ongoing harm these relationships caused. The pattern was much harder to see, and only became clear when I found myself with my back against the wall. Like Dr. House says: the lesson will be repeated until learned..
X is about the last of these stand-in for my father left in my life, and our friendship is literally hanging by a thread, there may well not be any way to salvage it (we’ll see how strong his expressed desire to fix this comatose friendship really is — see rule 13 anecdote, below) but at one time there were quite a few of these Irv stand-ins among my closest friends. A kind of intimate fifth column, undermining my progress by repeating that an angry person like me is incapable of overcoming the reflex to act out of temper, no matter what we might think. No matter how many times we may have believed we’ve demonstrated our progress.
The lesson I needed to learn, and kept having to repeat until I began to learn it, was that somebody who is smart, and funny, and sometimes kind, but who often doesn’t listen and insists on blaming you for any conflict, is an unhealthy person to be around. Amazing how many times I had to live through the identical storyline until I started learning to recognize the signs and take action earlier and earlier. In case after case I learned where the line was when things became intolerable and how to protect myself by acting contrary to how my programming (and I was programmed by this very type, mind you) had taught me to react. Each time I was unable to see the mechanism, until some flare-up made it painful enough to see, bad enough for me to cut ties.
Over the years I began to see the actual mechanism at work, always very, very similar in its operation, yet I couldn’t figure out how to get past the constant traps set by this brilliantly insane type. Manipulative, able to convince you they really cared about you — inwardly angry and able to express it as well-camouflaged, perfectly deniable hostility (virtually all of these people were very smart, like my father was, and most also witty, in a sardonic way that could be used as a weapon, or to disarm). Part of the genius of this type is their ability to make you believe that you must be crazy, oversensitive, at fault for any ugliness that might crop up.
The gradual learning I had with these types (virtually all of them gone from my life now) may have culminated in this one last lesson with my longtime friend now. I say that knowing that no progress is permanent, that we always take steps backwards and forwards. In the case of X, a guy I’ve known since we were kids, I have been able to lay out the syndrome in granular detail — not only for him, but for his girlfriend, who heroically tried to make peace, for Sekhnet and for myself. X continues to express bewilderment that I seem to have been so hurt by his mistreatment, but the two women and I can now view things with clarity.
The things that killed our friendship, step by step, are literally there on the table, in black and white, for anybody with the ability to read to follow. I now know the workings of the incredibly subtle (at the same time incredibly crude) game I am up against better than I know almost anything. In every case of a “last straw”, the final proof is only the latest example of a long list of things.
I had a poignant email from his girlfriend, sentimental, kind, intelligent, asking me to please explain why I cannot accept that X is really trying, that he truly loves me, values our friendship, etc. Her letter moved me, and I wrote her a long letter back, illuminating exactly how each skillfully veiled, arguably unintended, “fuck you” was constructed, made to look like a gracious statement, or a generous offer. When I was done writing the letter explaining things to her I felt a surge of energy, of completeness.
I felt like I’d finally mastered that particular difficult decades-in-the learning lesson. It was gratifying to know I had set so much of it out so clearly, at last, like I was reciting the lesson, finally learned. Like I’d completed my Masters Thesis and it had been accepted. When I read Sekh the letter I wrote to X’s mate, the would-be peacemaker, she understood for the first time that I was not being merely being a “man”, petty, mean, proud, venting anger, manfully exacting revenge for perceived mistreatment, trying to teach him a lesson– I was only making clear exactly what was intolerable to me, the kind of no-quarter argumentativeness I would no longer accept.
I’d laid out for his girlfriend (as I had previously for him) everything that was toxic in the relationship and recounted his defensive attempts to place his increasing callousness in the context of eternal friendship, his own bewilderment and my constant misunderstanding. I provided everything needed for her to understand our respective roles in the conflict, how patronizing his ostensibly peacemaking emails had been, couched in polite, seemingly conciliatory language containing repeated instances of clear, snarling, yet subtle “drop deads” (arguably even unconscious on his part). Felt like I’d graduated, being able to explain it so precisely, and also, never losing my temper while having endured more than a little abuse from X over the course of the last few months.
Mark Friedman was the poster boy for repetition compulsion, for living and reliving the unlearned lessons of his life. I understand now, thanks to this 12th Rule (A lesson is repeated until it is learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.) that Mark kept trying to learn something by this repetition that he was never able to get any insight into. In the end, I believe, it was his lack of insight into his misery that did him in.
How many years can one perform the same sickeningly familiar three act tragedy over and over and over, new cast each time, identical, infernal dramatic arc? Act one: great excitement! amazing new person, or idea, or program, nothing like it — thrilling, life changing! Act two; ominous cracks begin to appear, imperfections, warning signs. Act three: violent reprisal against Mark, anger, betrayal, repudiation.
It depressed me to hear this same story a hundred times over the years. Finally could take it no more — plus, our friendship was the same airless drama, only the longest running version of it and Act Two was being endlessly drawn out. In the end, he never learned any lesson from his predictable misery, died a wealthy man, completely alone, having alienated virtually everyone he ever knew.
Which brings us to Rule 13, a reminder that even an asshole, if he is motivated, is not doomed to be an asshole. It also reminds us to be kind, whenever we can:
People always do the best they can. If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.
This was a big lesson I was fortunate to learn shortly before I got the sudden news that my father was dying. A parent is a different case than a friend — my close relationships with all those friends who stood in for my father were attempts to learn the lessons I needed to be able to work out with my father without it being total war (my dad generally insisted on total war). I had a breakthrough in psychoanalysis maybe two months before Irv suddenly found himself on his death bed with a few days left to live.
The timing of my psychological breakthrough was very lucky. I’d come to realize, truly, that he had not been able to do any better than he did — the truly horrible abuse he’d suffered as a baby and throughout his childhood had given him a lifelong emotional disability that prevented him from being able to do the painful work necessary to not be that way. He did not believe anything he did or might do could change anything for him — or for anybody else, for that matter. What he did as a father, while often not what a child might wish for, was the best he was capable of.
That revelation– that he was sadly, truly unable to do better — allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him. I came to this when I digested how atrociously he’d been abused as a young person. As he was dying he was full of regrets, I was able to keep sincerely reassuring him that he’d done the best he knew how, that he could not have done better. It was a small reassurance for him — his main efforts before he died were expressing his many painful regrets. Without the insight that he’d truly done the best he was capable of, I could not have been as open with him as I was. He would not have been able to unburden himself the way he did if I hadn’t been hearing him with so little judgment in that hospital room.
That is speaking of my father, the rare relationship where it is almost always worth the exertion to try to heal. A friend, X for example, who does the best he can but simply can’t hear — because of lack of a role model for how it’s done, or out of an excess of myopic self-regard, or competitive mania, or whatever reason — I won’t be around to comfort him on his deathbed as he expresses his regrets. I don’t owe it to X, as I didn’t owe it to Mark, though I felt I should try to give it to my father, to make his passing easier. It was a wonderful gift to both of us that I was in a position to hear him, and he to feel heard. These, rules 12 and 13, are two excellent, important life lessons to digest and put to use.
Here they are again, for your consideration:
12: A lesson is repeated until it is learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.
13: People always do the best they can. If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.
Here is her doctor’s Rule 8, always well-worth recalling, if we are to be as merciful to ourselves (and others) as possible:
There are no mistakes, only lessons. Growth is a process of trial and error, of experimentation. The “failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately “works.”