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 and abandoned — 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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