Friday, November 19, 2010

See No Evil, Hear No Evil...?

From my apartment I can hear the fights of the couple across the hall from me. The screaming, the crying, the sound of things being thrown or broken...sometimes they catapult me back involuntarily to my past. A little bit of my family situation, but mostly two of the abusive relationships I was in before D*. Crying several times a day was the norm, as was being yelled at and insulted. Things were not thrown that often, but the few times it happened really stuck with me, bolstered by nightmarish memories of growing up. I was completely miserable. I was too afraid to end the relationship because I had been stripped of all my friendships and support networks and led to believe that I was too incompetent to be alone. If I had had someone, anyone, reach out to me, acknowledge what was happening, ask if I was okay, any sign of support, I might have found the strength to stand up and end an emotionally-abusive and draining relationship, but there was nothing for months and months and months.

I am very conflicted about the role of "bystanders," if you will, in abusive relationships. The worst relationship for me took place in the very same coed fraternity house in which I was raped. This was when I had first transferred to Dartmouth and didn't know anyone. People in that frat had similar interests to me, and I enjoyed going there. I got into a relationship much too quickly and became isolated from everyone, even though I pretty much lived with him in that house. When things turned sour and he and I started fighting, I knew everyone could hear it. (The walls were paper-thin and you could hear a normal conversation in one room from the next room over.) I was too intimidated to approach these people that I sort of knew but wasn't sure I was really friends with, and for six months, no one ever approached me.

To call the situation awkward was a huge understatement. I saw my neighbors in the social spaces of the house, but I had to keep up the friendly facade of talking about classes and every day chit chat, even though part of me screamed inside Don't you hear me? Won't you help? But they weren't really close friends, and I knew I was on my own.

A couple months into our fighting-and-crying phase, my then-boyfriend received one email from someone asking if he was okay. When I heard that, a surge of jealousy and desperation rose within me. Why couldn't I have received one? If I had, I might have spilled out all my misery and been able to ask for help. But I didn't have the courage to just go to someone and bare my soul unwarranted, and so I continued to stay shut-in. I was lonely even though I was surrounded by people. That kind of loneliness is the worst-- the kind where it's not about absence of people, but rather absence of interest. People politely looking away, shutting their ears and eyes, because they're not interested or because they think that's what they're supposed to do.

Because of my past, I have always urged people to speak up and say something if someone they know seems trapped in an unhappy relationship. I have done so myself, after witnessing a friend and the very unhealthy dynamic in his relationship. But I was surprised at the reaction I got-- he closed up, assuring me that everything was fine, even though it clearly wasn't. All I could do was just be a friend on the sidelines and hope all was well. But at least I was glad I had expressed my support and willingness to listen if help was ever needed.

On the other end, when I talked to friends about reaching out to other people, they expressed concern about prying into people's private matters, and said it was better to just wait and see. I was terribly confused. Why were my beliefs so very different from theirs? I would think that it is better to express care and concern and be brushed off than to not do so at all while someone hopes and waits. The friends I spoke to were so reluctant to bring up the topic even when there was evidence of other unhealthy relationships in the House. They were content to just wait until the explosive breakup happened, and then swoop in with care and comfort. I didn't understand then, and I still don't understand now. Is it that they were worried someone might be shamed by being approached about his/her relationship? Would being asked if they needed help be that embarrassing and awful? Is it about losing face? I don't understand.

To me, this culture of caution and privacy is awfully close to being dangerous. It seems like avoidance. Maybe part of it is the bystander effect-- if I see the signs then other people must too, so someone will probably handle it and it doesn't have to be me. Maybe part of it is projecting embarrassment or denial onto the person and thinking they won't want to be asked if they are okay. Maybe it's fear that the response will be so strong and angry that the friendship is harmed. I don't know what combination of reasons it is, but my heart breaks to think there are other people hoping someone will reach out to them and waiting, in vain.

So coming back to the present-- I suppose I am in even more of a dilemma here, because I don't really know my neighbors. The guy asked to borrow a vacuum once, and I know his first name. That's it. In terms of feasibility, it doesn't really seem like there's anything I can do, but I feel so helpless just sitting around. Any kind of inquiry I could make might be mistaken as a complaint that they're too loud or disruptive, which isn't what I would intend at all. (From experience, the last thing an abused person needs is to have someone complain that their fights are too loud.) It really does seem like there's nothing I can do, and it grates on me. I wish there were more I could do to help people in situations similar to my own. :-/

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