Oil on board           2015          16″ x 20″

Sometimes life is so confusing that I assume I’m not seeing reality clearly. I’ve had times when I would label myself as crazy, and I’d feel the shame that accompanies such a classification.

I chose a chimpanzee for my painting because they act zany. I dressed him in a straightjacket because that’s where crazy people can end up. A straightjacket is also a metaphor for constraint. I used to feel incarcerated by the maze of thoughts and feelings that converged when situations and people were beyond what I thought I could handle.

I imagined the cast of a circus would sum up the whole idea of crazy with its outlandishly costumed characters and their variety of exaggerated body sizes. What a joy it was portray the clowns and weirdos! I kept the background a monochrome blue to relegate their presence to a dreamlike haze of sameness. They are presumably an influence on the monkey’s craziness, but he stands out on his own as being the main-event nut. (Excuse my use of these politically incorrect words for mental instability. I’m not meaning to be dismissive of real mental illness. I’m using offhand lingo to vaguely sum up a felt state.)

The source of this afflicted label often seems hard to pin down, but it ultimately boils down to not trusting my own truth. It’s not about whether my truth in the moment is right or wrong. It’s about attaching a shaming label to my so-called wrongness. I will feel crazy when I bail on myself by abandoning my right to make mistakes, be blind to reality sometimes, to act like a jerk sometimes, and to feel terrible sometimes. I tend to attach this label at the prompting of certain others, driven by a long-held habit.

Before I dive in, let me qualify something. With each of my essays about my paintings I’ve tried to keep the focus on my own mind states. I don’t want to deflect my insecurities or resentments in the direction of others, or run through someone else’s dirty laundry list. I don’t have control over others’ minds and behaviors. I try in my everyday life to see interactions with others, especially tricky exchanges, to be an opportunity to explore my own motivations and perceptions rather than fixate on how the other person should change. It is usually a healthy practice of compassion and understanding. It is,unless I’m dealing with someone who is utterly toxic. Then, my zealousness to “clean up my side of the street” renders me a victim to a lethal game, a maze that has no exit.

It may not seem nice to call someone toxic, but I can get myself into real trouble if I assume everyone comes to the table with goodwill.

In the name of giving people the benefit of the doubt I have really thrown myself under the bus. I’ve done it numerous times. I’ve deemed it much easier to take the blame, clean up the mess, be the comforter and the good guy, the one who apologizes. I made the choice to be the fall guy and the scapegoat rather than lose a relationship or take on the long-term emotional punishment that I knew would be inflicted if I didn’t just give in and take the blame. It didn’t occur to me that if someone has mental health issues, a substance addiction, or takes pleasure in being abusive, there’s a chance they can’t be reasoned with or pleased.

I used to have an incredibly hard time labeling someone as toxic. It seemed an impossible prospect to say out loud that the other person was sick and off-base, because their crazy was always much more powerful than my logic. (My logic wasn’t anything close to logical as long I let myself be trapped by this perverted pastime.) I assumed that my good intentions, my trusting nature, my best people skills, and my ability to problem-solve would lead, ultimately, to a good relationship. Instead, my drive to get along made things worse. When the situation wasn’t workable in the first place, these attributes pushed me farther into the briar patch. My efforts, like everything I did, could be twisted to appear as evil deeds.

When I refer to my people skills, I’m not just talking about being nice. I’m talking about setting reasonable boundaries, sticking to those boundaries, being honest and clear in my communications without being pushy or manipulative, giving all parties a level of autonomy…and other healthy relationship skills that usually work. I use the word usually because if the other person is using everything I do against me, no skills are healthy. The only viable skill is putting a stop to interactions. An important part of good people skills is knowing when to cut your losses.

I can handle people who are jerks all the time. If someone is an honest-to-goodness pain-in-the-rear, I can see that coming. I know what to expect, and I can get out of the way, or work around them. Sometimes killing them with kindness works. They’re not hiding anything, and sometimes I sort of respect them for being up front.

It’s the nice people who trip me up. The ones who offer me something that looks like love and respect, who treat me as special for a while, who tell me what I want to hear. Some people use it these kindnesses as a weapon. Counterfeit adulation has hoodwinked me into being trusting and generous, but eventually it comes with mammoth strings attached. My good nature ends up being taken for granted, taken advantage of, and in the end, taken to the cleaners.  This phony love is doled out and reeled in at just the right intervals to insure I will fall in and out of trust again and again. Many predators’ have an arsenal of means to confuse their prey, and when confused, their victims become weak and lack judgment. Out of frustration, exhaustion, and bewilderment, I let my values slip. In my disorientation I would be in constant denial and make excuses for things that were inexcusable. I’d become “crazy.”

I had a knack for getting caught in a back-and-forth sporting event in which the rules changed constantly, the behavior changed radically and randomly, and the booby prize went to the person who couldn’t pretend it was all going smoothly, namely me. My blindness and my willingness to keep dancing the terrible tango created a safe haven for others’ bad behavior. I played a big part in this dark game. It couldn’t have gone on without me. Feeling crazy was a warning sign that what was happening in front of me wasn’t jiving with what I knew to be true inside myself.

I would feel like such a fool when I’d wake up to the game. It was embarrassing! How could I fall for something like this? Only one answer follows. I had to be getting something out of it. Eventually I realized that I fell for it because the biggest carrot of all was being dangled in front of me. I was getting what I thought was love. It started out looking just like love. In fact it was so wrapped up in a perfect bow that I would have seen it as suspicious if I knew better. Even if it didn’t come all the time, this kind of love tapped into exactly how I wanted to see things. It lifted my self-esteem, made me feel like the most important, the most competent, the most desirable. It wasn’t love, it was ego manipulation.

If it were real love, my ego wouldn’t have been stroked. Real love makes me feel like me. It likes me exactly as I am.

The solution for forward movement away from this deception is quite simple. Sometimes the only answer to something destructive and unworkable is to get the heck away from the danger zone. Removing myself from an enmeshed, detrimental relationship can become crucial, but its negative qualities do not make it any easier to exit than in the case of a healthy, delightful affiliation. In fact, if my self-esteem has been squashed, a departure carries with it all sorts of agonies. I’ll tend to be convinced that I’m perpetrating a massive betrayal, which only serves to prove how improper the judgments flying around are. A healthy person would respect our need to move on.

It’s unbelievable how quickly sanity can seem to emerge once I free myself from the trap. For a while I pinch myself as I notice how “regular” people do not make relationships into a torture arena. Once I’ve detoxed a bit, I start to look back and make out which weird behavior was mine, and which was not. The refreshing news is, when there’s no one to pick apart my weird behavior and throw it in my face, I can see much more clearly. My shortcomings can be looked at squarely, with equanimity and an eye toward healing.

Why do these people get like they are? The answer is, None of my damn business. If I had all the hours back that I’ve spent wondering about the maddening behavior of others I could build the pyramids by myself. Well-meaning people may suggest that running from relationships or calling people toxic shows a lack of compassion. I certainly used that guilt trip to keep myself in a cage of misery. One of my biggest wake-up calls during a detrimental relationship was when I opened a book to a quote by Woodrow Wilson. “There is a price that is too great to pay for peace. That price is self-respect.” When another person or entity is consistently inflicting harm, I am not showing compassion by trying to work with them. The nature of their game is to toy with compassion and turn it on its face. I am fueling their fire with any interaction I offer.

While it’s true that having some understanding of the mechanics of addiction, narcissism, or whatever condition others might have can give clues to how to comport myself, I only need this information so that I can comprehend how powerless I am to change or influence the situation. And then I focus on my own healing.

To avoid future entanglements it would be good to know why I get trapped by these kind of people. A little Psychology 101 teaches that I am attracted to people whose behavior I’m familiar with. I am like a fly mesmerized by a bug-zapper when someone comes along with issues that jive with ones I haven’t yet worked out. It’s a subconscious pull to “get it right” with a person whose behavior strongly resembles that of one of my formative ties. Somehow if I can make the present relationship work, it will be the success I yearn for after the failure of the last time. Some call them Mommy or Daddy issues. Of course all of this is way below the conscious level, so knowing about it is no help whatsoever. The realization has to come on an emotional and visceral level—a recognition that this familiar, devastating pain is happening again, and that no controlling on my part will solve anything. I have to take steps to dismantle my old way of seeing.

The most important part of my healing from this is to start seeing my frailties as human, not evil. If I’ve fallen for the cruelty of another I’ve been a target for a load of incrimination that sees all vulnerability as an opening for a shame festival. To heal from this degradation I don’t have to get better at anything, I just need to stop agreeing with the accusation that I’m wrong, stupid, or crazy. I will want to stay away from people who think I am, and find people who don’t mind my insufficiencies.

Getting away from harmful people can feel like getting out of prison. It can feel expansive, abundant, and dazzling to be suddenly freed from Crazyville. Creativity and spirituality are suddenly at arms reach, if not filling our hearts to brimming. It’s like an explosion of freedom. It’s best to enjoy the living daylights out of this newfound exhilaration, and glean from its lessons every last nugget of self-knowledge so we are more apt to see danger coming the next time. Duplicitous people aren’t in short supply, and if we’ve faced our own demons we will spot them quicker, get away faster, and never lose our self in the process.

If I could make a promise that I’d never get fooled again, I might be wrong. I don’t know what I’ll do in the future, but my destructive habits of the past make me eager to be fully conscious when encountering people who either seem too good to be true, or seem to nudge me into second-guessing my own truth. With faith and a little help from my friends I’ll navigate myself away from that whirlpool, and maybe even help others who might be veering toward it.