A few days ago an act of casual, impulsive malice on my part caused a possibly irreparable rift between me and a dear, emotionally vulnerable friend. The impulse to hurt this person’s feelings did not come from the Devil; it came from a part of myself that I consistently refuse to acknowledge and give safe voice to, a part of me that some call the Shadow, others the Wounded Child, still others the Beast Within.
As an abuse and neglect survivor with PTSD, I prefer to think of myself as an abuse victim in recovery, not an abuser. And in general I do not go out of my way to hurt people. But my coping mechanism as a child in an alcoholic incestuous home was to be the Good Boy, which meant shoving under the surface all my unacceptable feelings and thoughts: jealousy of my mother’s preference for my baby brother; rage toward my father for his scary emotional aloofness and abandonment of me to the care of my pedophile mother; loathing of myself for my sensitivity, which my culture termed girlish—and bear in mind that in the gynephobic 1950’s, when I was a child, the worst thing one could say about a boy was that he acted like a girl. So as a child I became a compulsive eater, using sugar to shove my bad feelings down as deep as they would go. Later I became a compulsive self-castigator, criticizing my every thought and move, turning my anger upon myself because I could not feel safe expressing it toward those whom I felt had harmed me.
Needless to say, these tactics did not give me more than transitory relief from the storm inside me. It is a well-known metaphysical principle that if you wish to make a spell or sacred object more powerful, hide it out of sight. This is one of the reasons sacred objects are found buried all over the world, and sacred Paleolithic art, aimed at attracting game to the hunt and fertility to the community, was created in nearly inaccessible caves. Stuffing shadow with food or sex or overwork or gambling or alcohol or heroin or any other numbing substance or activity merely makes that shadow stronger, so that when it resurfaces, it does so with a power impossible to contain completely by an act of will alone.
I’ve done a lot of work with mentors and healers over the years. Through my Twelve Step programs I have opened successive chambers of my heart to Divine Love, and in my art therapy work with the Solace Crisis Intervention Clinic in Santa Fe I have taken major strides toward acknowledging the terror and pain of my inner self. But I can still be blindsided by my shadow, and in the case of my relationship to this dear friend, the unrequited sexual attraction I felt for my friend, my unconscious social and professional competition with my friend, and my growing emotional dependency upon my friend, changed to resentment when—and I am loath to admit this publicly—a series of tragedies in my friend’s family made my friend unavailable to me for much of the summer. So I posted several snarky and suggestive “jokes” on my friend’s webpage, despite the fact that my friend’s family (including a 12 year old niece) would have access to them; and I posted a comment on the webpage of a Meetup group my friend had organized suggesting edits to the website opening page that lessened recognition of my friend’s role as founder in the interest of “helping” the current facilitator of the group to achieve more public recognition (a recognition that worthy has never sought).
In deep grief and pain over the loss of beloved relatives, my friend—with uncharacteristic verbal and emotional violence—severed relationship with me. My friend had been under so much emotional pressure that finding my posts on the website was too much to bear with equanimity. So I, who hate to think that in me lies the potential to abuse others, have had to face the fact that under the right circumstances, my Shadow can arise and take control, suborning my empathy, muting my memory of shared kindnesses, and unleashing in me my repressed desires for revenge against my childhood caregivers. I have had to face the fact that, while I never intended to devastate my friend, I had intended to punish my friend a little bit for not meeting my infant needs—punish my friend just enough that my friend would pay more attention to me. I underestimated my friend’s emotional alertness and vulnerability.
Did I plan to hurt my friend, as my friend has accused me of doing? No. My posts were action of impulse, and I “forgot” or minimized the possible alienating effects of them as soon as I had made them. Am I responsible for the intensity of my friend’s grief and rage toward me? No. I had underestimated my friend’s vulnerability, and had had no inkling of the possibly far-reaching effects of my actions. But my shots, having been fired, cannot be taken back. They found their target. And the result has been disastrous.
However unintentioned the scope of the wound I have given my friend, and however intermixed with other wounds my friend carries from other betrayals and abuses, I have lost the privilege of our friendship. And I’m sorry. •