escape artist

“Suzanne is forty years old and has never had a close rela­tion­ship. She spends most of her spare time read­ing books and brows­ing the web. Suzanne is most com­fort­able with casual, friendly rela­tion­ships where noth­ing very per­sonal is discussed.

Suzanne is mar­ried to a man who is out of touch with his feel­ings. He’s more inter­ested in being mar­ried than in being mar­ried to Suzanne par­tic­u­larly. He has few friends, and does not expect close­ness from Suzanne. He wants a woman just so he can ful­fill the con­ven­tional role of hus­band. Their rela­tion­ship is based on tra­di­tional roles, not on real inti­macy. They rarely con­fide in each other.

Suzanne has smoked mar­i­juana her entire adult life. She insists that she is not addicted — she tells her­self she only does it for recre­ation, and that she has con­trol. Besides using drugs on a reg­u­lar basis, she tends to drink in set­tings when she doesn’t feel as socially capa­ble as others.

Suzanne became depressed, but was not in touch with her feel­ings of aban­don­ment and defec­tive­ness. She spent much of her life mak­ing sure she was not in touch, and try­ing to escape her feelings.

With Escape, we avoid think­ing about our life­trap. We push them out of our minds. We also escape feel­ing our life­trap. When feel­ings are gen­er­ated, we dampen them down. We take drugs, or overeat, or com­pul­sively clean or become a worka­holic. And we avoid enter­ing sit­u­a­tions that might acti­vate our life­trap. In fact, our thoughts, feel­ings and behav­iors work as if the life­trap never existed.

It is nat­ural that Escape becomes one of the ways we cope with life­traps. When a life­trap is trig­gered, we are flooded with neg­a­tive feel­ings — sad­ness, shame, anx­i­ety, and anger. We are moved to escape from that pain. We do not want to face what we really feel because it is too upset­ting to feel it.

The dis­ad­van­tage of Escape is that we never over­come the life­trap. Since we never con­front the truth, we are stuck. We can­not change things that we do not admit are prob­lems. Instead, we con­tinue the same self-defeating behav­iours, the same destruc­tive rela­tion­ships. In try­ing to coast through life with­out feel­ing pain, we rob our­selves of the chance to change the things that are caus­ing us pain.

With Escape, we give up our emo­tional life. We do not feel. We walk around numb — unable to expe­ri­ence real plea­sure and pain. Because we avoid con­fronting prob­lems, we often end up hurt­ing those around us.

When we escape, we strike a bar­gain with our­selves. We will not feel pain in the short run, but in the long run we will suf­fer the con­se­quences of hav­ing avoided the issue year after year. As long as she escapes, Suzanne will never get what she wants most — to love and be loved by another human being who really knows her.”

—Reinventing Your Life

They’re always given a name first; a way to human­ize the dis­or­der. Anyone could be a Suzanne. People who strug­gle are one of us, not one of them. I’ve found so much of myself among these pages, but never expected to find her in a book long ago rec­om­mended to me by a ther­a­pist. How sur­pris­ing it was to stum­ble across the sum­mary of a tragic char­ac­ter who once had a major role in my story. A roman à clef, if not for the clin­i­cal dis­sec­tion halfway through.

All I ever wanted was to be good for her. To help her reach her poten­tial, what­ever she decided that was, and at her own pace. As a per­son who cared about her well­be­ing, I felt it was a respon­si­bil­ity of mine to take on the emo­tional labour of say­ing things other peo­ple didn’t have the heart to say. Of bring­ing up uncom­fort­able truths, like the fact that she deserved more from a spouse. After all, I knew what it was like to be unsat­is­fied in my rela­tion­ships, and trapped from self-defeating behav­iours. But I also knew the way out wasn’t easy, and she never wanted to see that.

In fact, almost every deci­sion she made was a way to avoid work or dis­com­fort. To get out of doing any sig­nif­i­cant per­sonal growth, which often involves over­com­ing some kind of dif­fi­culty, she mar­ried some­one who has the most basic require­ments for a part­ner. His sim­ple stan­dards may have made it an easy rela­tion­ship to fall into, but not being involved with some­one she pro­foundly cared about meant she didn’t have any­thing sig­nif­i­cant to lose. In doing so, she never learned the impor­tance of tak­ing roman­tic risks, the way to feel secure amidst uncer­tainty, or the role vul­ner­a­bil­ity plays in inti­macy. And she gave up the chance to develop a much deeper and more ful­fill­ing rela­tion­ship with a per­son who can lift her up, instead of a per­son who encour­ages stagnation.

the last time that I saw her she was liv­ing with some boy
who gives her soul an empty room and gives her body joy

—Death of a Ladies Man

It’s obvi­ous he loves her — as much as he can love any­one — from the way he puts her first when mak­ing plans, and the fact that he accepts her despite the drink­ing and the drugs. The prob­lem is that it’s not enough, cause she’s not just any­one, and some­where inside she knows this. She’s so much more com­plex and spe­cial than the way he treats her, and she’ll never be appre­ci­ated as such by a man who only has the depth to under­stand her most super­fi­cial lay­ers1. Deep down, she’s start­ing to real­ize she’s never been truly loved as the per­son she is, only the per­son she tries to be, while the shock of such a real­ity keeps it from becom­ing a con­scious fact.

There’s noth­ing wrong with any dynamic, as long as the par­ties involved are hon­est and happy with the arrange­ment. But as time goes on, and the breaks she needs from him grow longer, she becomes less of both. So she does more clean­ing, agrees to carry his chil­dren, any­thing to con­vince her­self she’s a good wife in a worth­while rela­tion­ship, with­out real­iz­ing that every step she takes goes deeper into the same hole she’s been dig­ging her entire life.

By now, she’s lost the abil­ity to sup­port her­self with­out him, but only in the most mate­r­ial way. It’s left her trapped in the mar­riage, one based more on con­ve­nience and fear — fear of being alone, of being rejected, of being aban­doned by some­one she truly cares about2 — than love. On top of all this, she’s avoided any sit­u­a­tion that would have forced her to develop the emo­tional matu­rity or com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills to nav­i­gate a major con­flict, let alone a breakup or divorce. It’s no won­der she’s com­mit­ted to main­tain­ing the illusion.

Which is the most tragic part of the entire chap­ter. She deserves so much more, least of which is hap­pi­ness, but can’t fig­ure that out. I may have played a small part in her jour­ney — just one of those peo­ple around her, who ended up get­ting hurt — but I’m not ashamed to say I loved the real Suzanne, once, beneath all the lies she kept telling her­self and the world. I loved the awk­ward, uncom­fort­able girl who clung to my arm at par­ties for fear of hav­ing noth­ing to say. I loved the kind, thought­ful woman who saved songs and books and movies so we could share them together. I loved the witty, intel­li­gent writer who made every expe­ri­ence more enjoy­able with her laugh­ter and insight. I loved her uncon­di­tion­ally despite all the pain she put me through, cause that’s what she needed and wanted and never had.

  1. After 10 years together, he still doesn’t have the insight to know when she’s depressed. And even if he was aware, he wouldn’t know how to help or what to do. []
  2. Things most peo­ple have learned to cope with by adult­hood. []

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