I'm an overachiever with a history of abuse and a boyfriend in jail

I know I should break up with my bad boyfriend, but we share things I can't share with anyone else.

Published March 5, 2007 11:54AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

While writing Friday's column, I was searching the Web for an expert opinion on wedding invitation etiquette, and e-mailed Ann Connell Bergin of Amherst, N.H., whose wedding advice I found on the site of the Nashua Telegraph.

I asked her what happens if the person giving a wedding gets no response from someone she has invited; might she be expected to call? I was working so fast that by the time she replied, even though it was extremely prompt, the piece had already gone up. But since it addressed my question well, I wanted to offer it here.

"Yes," she said, "to answer the first question, it is proper to call the guests, and being gracious, give the guests the benefit of the doubt by assuming that the guests have not erred and that the response has been sent, and has been lost in the mail. I have done this as a service to my clients and I usually say, 'Hello, I am the consultant for the Smith-Johnson wedding. I am giving the head count to the caterer and noted that the Smiths have not heard from you. Perhaps your reply was lost in the mail. May I give them the good news that you are planning to attend?'"

She goes on to say, "Your next question poses a bit of a stickier wicket: If people expect to be invited to a wedding, they are usually basing that expectation on previous written contact, such as a Save the Date Letter, or an invitation to a pre-wedding party such as an engagement party or a shower. In other words, in order to have an expectation, it must be based on something concrete. For the supposed guests to call and ask if the invitation was lost depends upon how firm that basis is."

Aha, I thought to myself. That's the crux of the matter: You must have some concrete reason to believe that you are supposed to be invited to the wedding. In the personal example I recounted in Friday's column, I had been told by someone involved in the planning that I was supposed to be invited.

So that seems to be the key. Mere friendship itself may not be sufficient basis to believe you are invited.

"Yes, if the invitation were lost in the mail," she continues, "the supposed guests would be reasonable in expecting a follow-up inquiry, from the hosts, i.e. 'I have not yet received your response? Did you get the invitation or was it lost in the mail?'

"Yet, these guests could be correct in assuming that if they get no invitation, they're definitely not invited, end of story ... if the basis for their expectation is weak, and merely a vague verbal mention some time ago."

So there you have it.

Thanks, Ann!

Now on to other pressing matters.

Dear Cary,

I'm very confused right now. I'm a college student with one more year to go. All of my life I have been the overachiever in my family. Straight A's, full scholarship to college, but I have also been the cold, smart, cynical bitch. I met a guy in high school, and we have been together since I was 17. I'm almost 22 now, so he's pretty much the only real relationship that I have had. I have opened up to him about everything: my abusive past, my inability to be close to other women, my issues with being biracial and all that good stuff. He was my rock, but he is the complete opposite of me. He smoked weed, didn't finish high school, didn't hold a steady job, and has been in jail now for almost nine months, with a possible two-year sentence.

On the other hand, I feel like he was the first person that I could be more than that bitch with; I could be myself without fear of it being beneath the image that my family has of me. I don't know what to do. I'm sure in my mind that I should leave him because being with him spells out a life of taking care of him and his mistakes, but I get to play the martyr role. Being without him means not having to deal with all that drama and immaturity, but I don't know what I'd do without even the thought of him being there.

He really was all I had at one point, and now I feel horrible for even mentioning leaving when I know that his friends have abandoned him, and his family is too busy to sustain regular contact (he's jailed in a different state). Now, there goes that confusion: At one point in our relationship, he was leaving me every weekend to go to other cities to try and make his "rap career" work. But it was a bust. I knew he was being foolish but didn't want to crush his dream. He would put his rapper cousin and that crap before me, even though I'd fund his trips when he was broke, and now, I must confess that I secretly am glad that I was right; they would and did abandon him when the going was tough.

I know that this guy has all the signs of a loser, but love and fear of abandoning someone else, especially when they need someone, has me paralyzed. I just don't know what to do. On top of all this, if we do stay together and he comes home, what the hell should I tell my parents? I know that they thought that he was beneath me, and I hate to have that theory proven.

Confused, But Not Really?

Dear Confused,

I do not think you are so much confused as you are afraid. You know what to do; as you say, "I'm sure in my mind that I should leave him because being with him spells out a life of taking care of him and his mistakes."

There. You said it. It's clear. It's true. It's just sad.

So how do you do this thing that is necessary but sad? You do it with dignity and grace and strength. Where do you get that dignity and grace and strength? Different people find grace and strength and dignity in different places. Do you go to church? Do you go to the ocean? Do you put on some music? We all have our ways.

So that is my answer to your basic question: You need to cut this man loose. Now I would like to elaborate on some ideas that I have.

Consider this: You have done well in college. In college you learn to study.

Studying is not so different from meditation. In meditation, you are sitting quietly somewhere. But you are not concentrating on a problem or taking in information; instead you are allowing the mind to wander freely, in the hope that, once off-leash, it will settle down after a bit and become calm.

In other words, when you study you are sitting quietly studying. When you meditate you are sitting quietly not studying. Meditation has benefits for one who has suffered abuse and thus may have anxiety and be in a period of crisis. So that is one thing you can do: Use your study habits to develop a practice of meditation, which will help you arrive at answers to some of your problems (you will sit quietly and answers will come to you).

I also think that good study habits in college can be adapted to what you might call "self-study." Self-study is like meditation except your mind has an active goal. Its goal, you might say, is to acquire a competent and thorough knowledge of yourself -- as if, for instance, you had to pass a final exam on yourself. You must know all about yourself -- and not your opinions about yourself but facts that can be supported with evidence. You study yourself as you would study any other subject. You take notes. You organize your notes. You memorize dates.

In so studying yourself, as in studying any subject in college, you learn the system, how it works, what are its components. For instance, you must gather the facts related to this abuse. Not just feeling but facts. What exactly happened, and when. Now, this is where often a psychotherapist is of great help, because some of these facts are too difficult to recall in solitary tranquility; they break the tranquility with their volatile, painful content.

But even if you need to engage a therapist for this work, you are ahead of the game, because you are good at sitting and studying.

In your case the most basic understanding you are likely to acquire is that early abuse distorts your later behavior. This is probably what has been going on. In avoiding thoughts and feelings you indulge in certain behaviors that otherwise you would have no need of.

In that way you are turning away from something. If you are cutting yourself or taking pills or banging your head or indulging in compulsive sex or drugs or bingeing or purging or any of the many private activities we do to avoid feeling things -- or if you are becoming the perfect overachiever who yet feels uncomfortable and inauthentic in her own skin -- this is a response to discomfort that has its roots in abuse. That is how the system works. There is perhaps also a part of you that feels wild and out of control. This is the part that you do not show to your family. This is the part of you that finds solace in being with your boyfriend, who is also wild and out of control. This wild part of you is also related to the abuse; it is the emotional equivalent of the impulse to run; it is symbolic flight.

So the way to change that, I am thinking, is to, by studying yourself, gradually learn to see the abuse without an overwhelming emotional response, to regard the memories internally without acting, which is very much what you do when you sit and study a subject. You do not study algebra and find yourself wanting to put a needle in your arm because the truth of the algebra is too emotionally taxing. You just learn it. You learn the algebra as distinct from yourself. So this is a study in the algebra of your self. Consider that you are the text you are studying. You are the system of knowledge that you yourself are acquiring; in a sense, through self-study, you acquire yourself.

I know this is taking things a little far, but that is what I do in this column: I take the simple things and I take them far beyond where we thought we were going. I push it. I go to the edge for you. So I imagine that in the course of self-study the culminating project is that you tell your story. That is your assignment in this particular class. You tell your story and come to regard yourself as an innocent. You come to recognize particular feelings that come up during the day and learn to regard them with courageous and level clarity. You learn to admit them to consciousness as echoes of something that happened long ago that can be mourned but not changed. You learn to sit with it and know what it is and not flinch from it, and to say, I was abused and the effect on me was that I acted out and in acting out I made certain choices and now I am undoing those choices and learning to make new choices and it is not easy but I know I will survive and prosper.

And in getting better you have, in a sense, constructed a new, stronger self, a responsible party who is looking out for you. And what is the first thing this responsible party does when she encounters your life situation? She looks at that boyfriend of yours and says, That guy is not in your best interests. That guy is harming you and this has to stop.

Now you are there. You are there for yourself. That is how you get better.

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