Mar 3, 2007

the label of dysfunction

I had a lot of fun today. For the first time, I met up with someone that I know solely from the internet. Before I went, I was nervous-- not about safety or anything. Gosh, no. I mean, I've read enough of her posts at one of my favorite websites that I know she's for real, plus I talked to her on the phone, plus we were meeting and a completely innocuous place.

I love being friends with other women. Absolutely, positively. I love Skywalker; he is the most stellar husband, friend, cuddler, thinker, talker imaginable. I really couldn't be happier.

But there is something about being friends with other women. It is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary for full joy in this life. If you're a woman. And it possibly works the other way with men, I don't know.

At any rate, I was scared of other women for a long time. Scared and defensive. Part of it was entirely my own fault; I could have taken my experiences and risen above them and not let anyone make me feel shame for who I was. I could have focused on the positive-- those women in my life who knew and loved and did not judge me in spite of my own imperfections.

At the same time, there was a legitimate difficulty. No matter what anybody says, does, or tries, Mormon Culture has a very difficult time handling certain situations. One of those is divorce. We believe strongly in eternal marriage; in the sacred nature of covenants. We believe in families being together forever and in the sanctity of parenthood.

Thus, divorce is very threatening to a lot of people in Mormon culture. To be faced with it is to be faced with the possibility that it may happen to you. The natural defense against this is to create a reason in your own mind for the person's divorce-- a reason within the person's own control, so that, retroactively, you can feel in control yourself. I think that this is the reason why people tend to blame, or be suspicious, or be cautious around divorced people.

Not to say that sometimes this isn't valid. I mean, I would tell my own daughters to be careful if they were dating a divorcee. There is so much possible baggage that comes with that, even if the person couldn't help what happened.

Let me tell you, though; being divorced, surrounded by a culture that doesn't want to think of themselves as even remotely capable of ending up divorced, can be hell-like.

I remember when it all happened to me, how people's attitudes and opinions of me changed. I went from being a respected woman in relief society with callings that held various elements of responsibility-- a woman looked upon as above reproach, in a way-- to being the one who was talked about at ward welfare meeting. The one who needed to be watched to make sure that she wasn't neglecting her child. The one who, if she happened to call you on the phone, you let the answering machine get it because she was probably calling to talk about something that you would rather avoid. It's not so much that, because you're divorced, because this awful thing happened to you, suddenly you're doing all sorts of things you didn't do before; it's that people look at what you are doing and reinterpret it according to the label that they have then placed upon you: "dysfunctional."

An example of this is when one of my friends, who became a very good friend in the aftermath of all that happened-- I have to admit that-- accused me of being bulimic.

OK. I'm not all that skinny. If any of you were to see me, you'd probably think, "slender." You might think "small." But you wouldn't think "Skinny," or "Unhealthy." I was blessed with good genetics-- my mother had six children and ended up only about ten pounds heavier than when she started. And my family loves to eat. It has nothing to do with the lack of food.

After all that happened with the divorce, stress caused my milk to dry up and I had to suddenly switch my little, 9-month-old baby, to a pure formula diet. This was right when we were trying to introduce solid foods, too. We moved houses, and suddenly she was put in full-time childcare while I worked and tried to go to school. I know that it was a control issue with her; food I mean. For a while the pediatricians were giving looks like, "you aren't feeding your child," and no matter how I explained, there was no sympathy.

Well, I wasn't surprised. After all, I was a single mom. Of course the dysfunction had to come from me-- in the pediatrician's eyes, at least. She didn't know me before, she only knew the divorced me, the labeled me. I switched to a less neurotic pediatrician and tried to forget about what the other had said.

It grew a little worse. Food became a battle with Loli. She would never eat. I would sit with her at the table with anything-- we tried applesauce, cereals, yogurts, fruits, vegetables, salty things, sweet things-- she only ate when she wanted to, which was rarely, and it was pretty random, what she chose.

In addition, she started gagging herself when she got upset at me. She would cry, I wouldn't be able to pick her up for one reason or another (most usually because I was driving the car or some other attention-occupying activity) and when she got angry enough, in would go the index finger and she would throw up all of her food.

I was so, so, so worried about her. I knew that this wasn't normal. I prayed, cried, went to the temple, bought expensive nutritional supplements.

And, naturally, I talked to my friend from the ward about it. She had been so helpful and supportive, so kind to me.

And so I was very surprised by her response: "I wonder where she learned that." Accompanied by a significant look.

That was the last straw-- that one experience. Mostly because the woman who said this to me is a kind, charitable, mature person who I thought I could trust to believe in me. I guess that even kind, charitable, mature people have a hard time getting around that 'dysfunctional' label, because I know, I know that she would not have said that to me when I was still married, had I vented to her then.

I curled up in an emotional fetal position after this. Women were not my friends, they were people to be wary of. My only remaining women friends were my sisters, mother, and two wonderful people who I had known and loved and played and laughed and cried with since we were eight years old. These women were (and still are) my pillars. I don't know what I would have done without them.

After awhile, I became used to the sort of skepticism and labeling that all women, even women who were my friends and trusted co-workers, displayed from time to time. I wasn't friends with women. And I started becoming rigid and defensive in return-- something that I regret now, but looking back, I don't know how I would have done it differently. It was just too much; being responsible and at a loss to parent a small child who desperately needed to feel loved and secure and cared for, struggling through my classes with the mountain of a PhD program looming in the distance, working part time, and then full time. I didn't have time, or energy, or even a modicum of security to devote to making women see who I really was.

Well, it's interesting, the things you notice. Now that I'm no longer divorced, no longer a threat to people, the new women that I meet accept me without question. I have fun with them, I laugh with them, I share myself with them and love what they share in return. I cherish my relationships with women. CHERISH them. I need that in my life, and I really, really missed it when it was gone.

one thing: I wonder how things would have been better, how they might have been easier, smoother, less stressful, if I had had those sorts of relationships when I really needed them the most. When I was vulnerable, when the world was on my shoulders.

And so, dear sisters, I ask you to look around and find someone, maybe in church tomorrow, maybe at work, maybe at school, maybe in your singles ward. Find someone who has been given that label, "dysfunctional", whether deserved or undeserved--

Find them, and love them unconditionally. Take a moment and listen to them without judging, and without telling them how they should do it better, without condescending. Approach them with a pure desire to enjoy them as a person, aside from their difficult circumstances, and share something vulnerable of yourself in return. Be that real friend for them, see them as just like you.

They need it.


Margaret said...

This is so powerful! And personal. And I'm SO glad that you survived and thrived despite it. What a depth of compassion you have - and what courage to share it with us.

I have several friends, including you :) , who have been through divorces, some nastier than others, and I think what you say is REALLY important! One of my very dear guy friends is divorced, and as his friend I hope and pray that people won't see him as labeled like that and then not give him a chance to be who he really is. We are not labels, and NO ONE is simple and unidimensional enough to be put in a "box" like that. We make assumptions based on what WE know, and you are right, often based on what we fear, and we need to grow beyond that in order to be FULL people ourselves.

NoSurfGirl said...

I agree. I still catch myself putting people in boxes now and then, and then I kick myself and remind myself how it feels. I think that you're a good example of someone who does NOT put people in boxes. Actually, you're one of those who made things easier, and I appreciate you. Your friend is lucky to have you. I hope that he finds a lot more like you, too.

Thanks for your comment. :)

merrilykaroly said...

Thank you for writing this. It helped me think about some important things.

I also want you to know how I have always seen you. This may sound cheesy or something but I've always seen you as a hero. A heroine, I guess. You are someone who overcomes, despite all odds. You are also so involved in important issues and politically aware and make decisions every day that affect others who depend on you. I'm always inspired by you. And now that you are adopting I keep thinking about how I wish I could follow in your footsteps someday!

If anyone could survive being judged or whatever else you've had to suffer, it's YOU. You are so strong and I love you!

NoSurfGirl said...

I shouldn't be up anymore, but I am.

merrily, you seriously made me cry.

Ok, going to sleep now.

Love you, cuz.

Lucy Stern said...

My daughter went on her mission in Utah, the Salt Lake City South Mission and she was shocked by what she saw up there. She wrote me a letter and told me about how the a family wouldn't let their children play with the next door neighbors because the dad smoked...She couldn't believe it..."What's wrong with the people up here..." She found a culture shock that she didn't think existed. I told her that not all the Mormons were like that and she needed to open her eyes and look for the good in people.

It is a shame that people have to judge others the way they do...The Lord tells us that we are NOT to judge. I know it is hard and there are many times that people lay judgement and they don't even know all the facts.

noelle f. said...

This sure was very well written.

The whole divorce thing really is interesting. I told myself FOR YEARS that I could not EVER marry anyone who was divorced. (If they couldn't make their first marriage work, how is it going to work for me? type of thoughts and fears.)

But it's interesting. Very interesting when a situation presents itself to you and you think to yourself, "Hmm, maybe it's not so bad as I thought".

TO LUCY STERN: When I lived in Sandy in 2005, one of my co-workers was an inactive member. Her mother, I believe, was a member when she was a child. Anyway, my co-worker was somewhere, when she was young, and saw a map of their neighborhood or something. The members houses had stars on them; hers had 1/2 a star.

That 1/2 star struck her to her very center and I feel that at that moment everything changed for her. She was so distraught and upset about seeing that partial star. I was floored when she told me that. And, I felt bad for her because SHE was so upset by it. And, I think she said too that some children couldn't play with her (or vice versa) because of her part member family.

I hope my old co-worker is able to see the good in other members of the church some day.