Not an excuse

During the last 27 years I have shaved off my beard exactly twice. Both times it was for a Halloween costume. The first time, a friend who was attending one of the parties we went to had just completed medical school the year before and was in his internship. I had noticed him looking at me oddly. The first time I attributed it to this being the first time he’d seen me without a beard.

Eventually he asked, “So, how did you get your lip tore so badly it required stitches?”

I had forgotten about the scar. I didn’t think it was that noticeable even when there wasn’t facial hair to hide it.

So I told him the story of one of my dad’s worse drunken Sunday afternoons when I was 10 years old, and how he’d come to beat me badly enough to break my collar bone, split my lip, and so on. This led other people who had starting listening in to ask some questions, so I wound up talking way more about Dad’s abusive behavior than I like. The sum up is: I, my sister, and our half siblings each has our own small collection of physical scars thanks to dad’s beatings.

One of the people listening observed, “Wow! You seem so much more together than I would expect.”

I made some kind of self-deprecating comment, such as, “Oh, I’m far less sane than you realize” or something, and tried to change the subject.

One of the others started telling a story of an ex who had had a similarly abusive childhood, and how incredibly messed up he was after. A couple others chimed in with similar tales. And then one person said he had known a few people like that, who blamed every time they screwed up—particularly when they hurt people close to them—on that abusive childhood.

“It’s just an excuse to be as thoughtless and irresponsible as they’d like,” he said. And then looked at me as if the fact that I at least try to think and be responsible proves his statement.

Which I wasn’t completely comfortable with. I agree that a dysfunctional childhood isn’t an excuse for such behavior, but life is very seldom as simple as that.

My paternal grandmother doesn’t believe in mental illness. She would insist that it’s all just excuses or someone wanting attention. Never mind that for some mental illness we can point to specific physical problems in the brain, or a lack of ability to produce or regulate a particular neurochemical, she always believed that if the mentally ill person wanted to be well, they would be. This was particularly troublesome when one of my sisters began having epileptic seizures, and grandma announced that as far as she was concerned, epilepsy was in the same category as mental illness, and it wasn’t a real problem at all.

So, while I agree that a bad childhood doesn’t excuse any and all bad or troublesome behaviors a person may exhibit in adulthood, it’s no less arrogant and cruel to dismiss those experiences as totally irrelevant than my grandmother’s thoughts on epilepsy.

It is a gross oversimplification to say that people like me have “gotten over it” and everyone else is just using it as an excuse. More accurate to say that some coping strategies are more socially acceptable and less disruptive than others.

While I do think that I’ve done a fairly good job of moving past that unfortunate history, I can’t honestly take all the credit. Some of it is just luck. I inherited a certain amount of arrogance and bullheadedness from that same abusive father, reinforced by an extra dose of stubborn refusal to give up from the grandmother on Mom’s side of the family. When my parents finally divorced and we moved more than 1000 miles from Dad, I was lucky enough to find a group of sci fi geeks and music nerds my own age. That gave me a new sense of family and belonging I hadn’t had before. I’ve built a career out of a knack for language, a predilection for troubleshooting, a level of curiosity some might describe as unhealthy, and a compulsion for explaining things to anyone I can corner.

A lot of my “talents” would be exceedingly annoying characteristics in a different context.

Which isn’t to say that we are obligated to put up with behavior from someone who doesn’t seem to want to change. We all have our limits. Sometimes we have to make that cold calculation: is having this person in my life worth the effort and trouble they put me through? If the answer is “no,” then we find a way to gracefully bow out of their life. No need to make a dramatic statement, or try to convince everyone else to drop the friend. Drastic measures are only required if someone’s health or safety is in danger, or if the other person willfully pursues you and tries to drag you back into their crazy.

Because troubling or annoying behavior isn’t an excuse for you to be a jerk.

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