Letters to a friend in prison
April 14, 2011 10:46 AM   Subscribe

How do I respond to an old friends letters from prison?

An old childhood friend of mine is currently in prison for having a sexual relationship with one of his underage students. He was in his thirties, she was under the age limit. I know no other details, if it was consensual, if it was exploitive to her, if she thought it was awesome but her mom pushed charges against her will.

It's really challenging my feelings about age disparate relationships and the age of consent, which I have many mixed feelings about. When I was in highschool I was the girl in one of these relationships and it was largely nonconsensual and horribly abusive. I recognize that not all age disparate relationships are of a horribly abusive nature as mine was and I really want to be open minded to that (but am struggling about what's right here.)

Personally I feel like he should be in prison, but I have mixed feelings because of not knowing the details, and my own mixed feelings about how severe the punishment is which are what prevented me from pushing charges against the guy in my own personal situation.

He keeps sending me letters, the last one I just got and haven't opened. I don't know how to respond or if I should respond. I feel like saying, "I'm so sorry for what you're going through" and then I think, wait, but I think you should be in prison, and why the hell did you do that? And then I want to write, "Why did you do that?!! What was going on, how did this happen, you shouldn't have done this!"

And then I think, well he's already in prison, isn't he already serving his time? Is it helpful to tell him I'm really upset by what he did, especially when I don't even know the details of how bad it was, or if it was as horrific as my situation? Should I just keep ignoring the letters and letting him send them, or should I write something short like, "Hey.... "

(I don't even know what to say that would be short and light to someone in prison?)

Or should I write something longer and tell him I'm upset by his actions but also sorry that he's facing the consequences?

Thank you for any insights or ideas!!
posted by xarnop to Human Relations (44 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you're going to respond to him don't respond about the crime or punishment etc. It doesn't really matter at this point, he's doing the time regardless.

You have to decide if it's worth your time or sentiments to respond to him. And if you respond you don't have to disagree with his punishment or agree with it. You just have to be there.
posted by the mad poster! at 10:50 AM on April 14, 2011

Or should I write something longer and tell him I'm upset by his actions but also sorry that he's facing the consequences

Yes, if you want to correspond with him at all. "I'm sorry for what you're going through" and "You should be in prison" aren't mutually exclusive thoughts. Can you find out more details about the case? Because whether or not it was abusive/consensual, I think, makes a big difference.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:55 AM on April 14, 2011

What are these letters about? Does their content upset you as much or more than the reasons he's in prison to begin with? Has he explained his motivation for writing you? It sounds like he feels you aren't going to shun him for the crime he committed, but you're at war with yourself over that.
posted by patronuscharms at 10:56 AM on April 14, 2011

I think my answer will depend on what sort of letters he's sending you. If he's just lonely and looking for any sort of mail, send him anything you want- a short card where you talk only about you, comics clipped from the newspaper, whatever. If he's sending you long missives trying to justify what he did specifically because he knows what you went through, that's a little weird and I don't know if you should respond.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:56 AM on April 14, 2011 [10 favorites]

It makes a little difference, but a teacher sleeping with an underage student is never okay, because of the authority the teacher has. Anyone who works with teens should be responsible enough not to get involved with them sexually. There is a power imbalance. The point of this, is that, you shouldn't feel bad about thinking what he did was wrong, regardless of the details. If that's how you feel, that's how you feel.

Why is he writing you? If it's just because he's bored/lonely, feel free to ignore. If he has some sort of legitimate question for you, then respond without mentioning your feelings.
posted by elpea at 10:57 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ugh, I had a friend in this situation, and all his friends stuck by him at first, myself included. He wasn't mentally stable, and considered his friends' supportiveness proof that what he did was completely OK. He didn't even have to do jail time for sleeping with a 15 year old boy. He later violated probation by trying to pick up a teenage girl over the internet. He did 2 1/2 years, and his friends still stuck by him. He still thinks nothing of what he did, and drifts from minimum wage job to minimum wage job until his past catches up with him. It's sad, but I'm very glad I no longer talk to him, because he's just not going to get the help he needs. I'll never understand how my old friends stuck by him as if he was completely innocent and normal (he later started oddly stalking me on facebook and would not understand when I said "we are no longer friends, you are a registered sex offender and I have children and we have not spoken in years".

So TLDR: a normal adult in his 30s doesn't sleep with someone underage, if you want to return his letters that's fine, but it's a tough, weird road to take and you may need to cut off contact in the future depending on his mental state. If you prefer to avoid the subject altogether and just alleviate his boredom and loneliness through letters, that'd probably be mighty nice of you.
posted by kpht at 10:59 AM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was in a relationship with my 30-something year old teacher when I was 15 (I'm almost 40 now). It was perfectly consensual and we're still friends to this day. I know that's probably rather shocking but I'm just saying these situations can differ greatly from each other and maybe sometimes they can even be ok. I definitely don't feel my ex- deserved to be in prison at all.

Why not just ask the guy about his situation? I know you'd only be getting one side of the story, but the only side you have right now is that of the judge so you might as well hear his defense.
posted by hazyjane at 10:59 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

After years of cynicism about the prison system and punishment vs reform, I have recently ended up talking with various people who've spent time behind bars who talk about very transformative experiences there. And part of that process was in coming to terms with a different view of who they were and what they did.

So, two observations:

The first is that non-violent sex offenders have an amazingly low recidivism rate, and even without that he'll be a different person when he gets out.

The second: how about honesty? "Hey, I've been avoiding your letters because this is an issue that's deeply personally triggering, and I don't know how to have even a casual letter writing relationship with you until I resolve some of those issues." And once you've written that part, as ThePinkSuperhero suggests, some light fluffy stuff to show that he's still connected to the outside world.

If you want to show him that he's still connected to the outside world.

I think, based on conversations rather than first-hand experience, that prison can be an amazingly isolating experience, and that what is going to make his re-integration into the society at large is a feeling that there's a society out there that's worth integrating into. Because, otherwise, why bother following that society's rules?
posted by straw at 11:01 AM on April 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

As you don't know the details of this person's crime, I question how good a friend he is. Working at a newspaper, I used to get a surprising amount of mail from strangers in prison, which makes me think that prison is really, really boring. He may be writing letters to every single person he's ever met, ever.

You have no obligation to entertain anyone via correspondence, in prison or not, regardless of whether you spent your childhood years as friends or not. You can decide to step away and should not feel guilty.

You also have no obligation to conceal the emotional turmoil this is causing for you for his benefit. If you feel like you want to say: Hey, this happened to me, and you're kinda freaking me out by writing to me and here's why, that's totally okay. He's got nothing but time to talk, and it's unlikely that you are going to make him feel worse than he already does. And if you can use this experience to come to terms with what you're feeling as a result of his writing, hey, all for the best.

on preview, this is also really good advice: if you want to return his letters that's fine, but it's a tough, weird road to take and you may need to cut off contact in the future depending on his mental state. If you prefer to avoid the subject altogether and just alleviate his boredom and loneliness through letters, that'd probably be mighty nice of you.
posted by purpleclover at 11:09 AM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Something very similar is happening right now with a childhood friend of my husband's. (I don't know the exact details, and we haven't asked -- yet. He has talked a little bit about why he's in there, but we haven't pressed for details or looked them up.)

From what I've seen of his letters from prison, he has a ridiculous amount of time on his hands and is surrounded by some pretty scary people. He has said several times that he really appreciates any sort of communication, whether it's just a quick card or a proper letter.

I'm also writing to him, even though we've never met, because I know his daughter and she's great, and because -- well, it seems like the right thing to do. I write about goofy stuff and ask about what he and my husband got up to as kids.

He also says that it's important for him to be able to show to parole officers or other court officials that he has supportive friends and family on the outside; this is apparently taken into account when his sentence is up and he moves to a halfway house for registered sex offenders. The quality of that halfway house and the time he spends there may be directly influenced by how much he can show that he is able to reintegrate into society, and how unlikely he is to reoffend.

As straw just wrote above, you'd be doing him a favor by helping him see what's going on in the world outside his jail cell. So even if you find it repugnant to consider the details of why he's in jail, you might be helping him out by just keeping in touch and writing a short, general letter now and then.
posted by vickyverky at 11:14 AM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

He will get out some day.

Unless he's in it for life or up for the death penalty, some day he will leave the prison system (though it may never be done with him). What sort of person would you like to emerge from that prison? Here is your chance to have an influence, however small, in the outcome. You can take it or allow it to pass you by, but if you care about that sort of thing, now is your chance.

Some woman poisons her kid? She still gets out some day. Someone shoots a clerk in the face in a liquor store? He still gets out some day. And they do not go to a faraway Island of Ex-Cons, they end up wiping down tables and just trying to get by. Right in your community. In all but the rarest instances, you will rub elbows with them, though you do not necessarily know it.

Keep that at the forefront of all communications, if any, you have with him.
posted by adipocere at 11:17 AM on April 14, 2011 [8 favorites]

What's in it for you to respond? Calling him an "old childhood friend" makes it sound like you weren't in contact with him before he went to prison. Just because he wants to resume contact doesn't make you obligated to respond. To be blunt, I wonder if you have some boundary issues. Trust your gut - you don't sound at all like you want to write him back. It sounds like you're doing it to be polite. Ignore him.
posted by desjardins at 11:20 AM on April 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Here is your chance to have an influence, however small, in the outcome

No. The OP should not be guilted or pressured into something s/he does not want to do, especially given his/her past.
posted by desjardins at 11:22 AM on April 14, 2011 [23 favorites]

Prison is brutal and lonely, particularly for sex offenders. They are sometimes grouped together away from the general population to avoid violence by other prisoners so that you have a real mix of scary, violent sex offenders and non-violent or technical sex offenders with good prospects for rehabilitation. It is a bad place to be if you're in that latter category.

You seem pretty conflicted about writing to him based on the feelings it's dredging up. It's your choice whether to write back, but don't feel obligated to weigh in with your opinion on his offense if you do. It's probably nicer if you don't. Your letter can be a break from tedium and regret and all the other complicated feelings associated with the offense and being incarcerated.

I disagree with this: it's unlikely that you are going to make him feel worse than he already does

If all you want to tell him is how awful he is for committing this offense, passing on responding is probably the best thing. Having talked to a lot of prisoners as my clients, I find they like to hear about what is going on in the outside world, your opinions on that, or updates on friends and family.
posted by *s at 11:23 AM on April 14, 2011

I think that if you feel strongly about this issue, learning more will only help. It may help you, it may help your childhood friend, and it may even help others.

If the letters you're receiving don't make you feel uncomfortable, by which I mean, if the letters themselves don't strike you as out-of-bounds, you could try an honest exchange of ideas. It might help you to ask for details, to contextualize your friend's crime and your own experience. It might be very helpful for you to express the feelings and confusion you're having, might even help to discuss your trauma with someone who has hurt someone the way you were hurt. If the guy who is writing to you is someone you feel safe responding to, it could really help both of you to discuss these issues of consent and power.

On the other hand, if you haven't talked to this dude in years and years, and you feel even the tiniest bit weirded out by his contacting you, drop it. Just ignore the letters. You have no obligation to write back to him.

Honestly, if I had the opportunity to exchange ideas with someone who had committed the kind of crime I was a victim of, I think I'd really want to to do that. To have that exchange. To say, "Hey, what you did was not okay, and it happened to me when I was a teenager, and it really fucked me up." I'd be interested in hearing his response. You never know: he could be full of regrets, hoping to find a way to heal. Or he could be someone you don't want to know, in which case you can cut off contact.

But you've been handed this admittedly weird opportunity to learn more about yourself, your feelings, your trauma, and also about a person who has committed a similar crime. It's something to think about. Put your own safety first, obviously, and do your homework regarding this particular person's crime(s).

Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview a therapist, Amy Hammel-Zabin, who exchanged letters with a sex offender. She wrote a book, unfortunately out of print, Conversations With a Pedophile. She learned a lot from corresponding with this person, and while I believe the man she spoke with was quite predatory, she was still able to understand trauma better through those conversations.
posted by brina at 11:32 AM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's ok to ignore his letters unless you want to continue your relationship with him in a meaningful way.

That said, if you do want to write to him, I vote for honesty. Start your first letter to him with something like, "You know, when you wrote to me I felt conflicted because ..." and then tell him what you told us to the extent that you feel comfortable. The plus side for you is that you don't have to angst about it or play games. The plus side for him could be that the conflict you're going through may inform his rehabilitation process.

It's obviously not your job to do that, and I only recommend doing it if that makes you feel better about the situation for yourself.
posted by Kimberly at 11:53 AM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

whether or not it was abusive/consensual, I think, makes a big difference.

Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't but I don't think you can ever rely on the perp's take on whether the relationship was consensual or abusive.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:56 AM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Adicopere--- that is absolutely at the forefront of my mind. It's also the concern. I tend to be that person that people go to when they want to confess the most horrible parts of themselves. I tend to want to reach out and believe in people to develop ethically toward others even if they have seen themselves fail in the past.

For obvious reasons, this has cost me greatly.

It can put you at risk to the be only person who believes in someone who has been dangerous. You become a lifeline, and needed in a way that can put you at risk, because if you're willing to accept and forgive them... sometimes you become the vesicle for them to try out the worst parts of themselves and see how long you'll continue accepting and forgiving.

Or if they start behaving dangerously and you cut them off immediately, you are cutting off their lifeline and they can behave dangerously.

My instincts are to want to believe in him, and offer him hope that there is a society that will believe in him. This feeling is also what lead me to be there for a guy who repeatedly did terrible things to me and then was very sorry. Very very sorry. So sorry.

I was so sorry for his pain. I'm reduced to the feelings I had while with that guy, "Please don't end your life, please, it's ok, you can figure it out, you can go to therapy, there is a way, please don't die, you can be a good person, I know it." All with the wonderful understanding and desperation of a 16 year old to make it better and figure it out without knowing what the f**k to do.

"I'm gonna buy a gun. I'm gonna buy a gun. I have to end it all. I can't believe I did this. I'm a bad person. I have to die."

"No, please, it's ok. It's ok. Everything is ok."

I was then, and am still completely sympathetic to the guys plight. He was just totally messed up and I understand. I still am glad that I was able to be there for him even though everything was totally messed. No one else was there for him. I have had a lot of conversations with that guy and I have been there for him while he grappled with the aftermath of what happened in our relationship.

I was also stalked by him for many years. During that time I still spent time talking about his abusive past and attempting to help him work through his issues and believe in himself to be a good person. He was also willing to listen to whatever I needed to say about what was going on.

But I am worried because people can read that ultimately I will find a way to forgive and understand no matter what. And that I've already seen so much messed up stuff in people that I don't find anything surprising. If I see any signs of compassion in the person, I want to believe in them.

I can see writing some light letters, or even more meaningful letters, but what happens when he gets out? How many other girls will be talking to him? What happens when he wants to hang out? What if I say I don't want to hang out and I end up making it worse for him because I was the only person talking to him and I won't hang out with him? What if I start to trust him in the process of writing letter and think "Oh it would be ok to hang out" and then then things go terribly awry? He has been interested in me before, and I feel like if I say anything I might be the only girl who responds to him which will make my presence in his life carry a huge weight.

I want to reach my hand out and help him through this, but I have done that for a lot of people and many of them were truly helped by that and I'm glad I did it but there is so much at stake for me.

I don't want to cut people off. I don't want to leave people hanging. I don't want to leave people with no one who believes in them, because what kind of a society is that? I think we should be there for each other, even when it's hard. If it's not our job as individuals in society to be there for people who are in need or ostracised, then whose job is it? So many people fall through the cracks. I can't stand letting people fall through the cracks.

But sharing my vulnerabilities with men in general has lead to nothing but trouble for me, so I don't think telling him, "I'm freaked out because I have a past situation and I'm scared and emotional" if I'm also going to put myself in the position of being one of the few people in the world that's there for him would be a good idea. That's leverage there. It can and has been used against me. If I'm going to be there for him, I would have to leave my own issues out of it because he's certainly not in a position to be protective himself. But then again people can read me like an open book.

I'm so torn about this.
posted by xarnop at 12:11 PM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: (holy crap, that was long. Sorry.)
posted by xarnop at 12:11 PM on April 14, 2011

You say that you don't know if the sex between this guy and his student was consensual or exploitive. Yes, you do know. She was under age--by definition, that means that she cannot consent, as a matter of law. In other words, it wasn't "just sex," it was rape. It may or not have been forcible rape, but it was rape. Sex without consent--which she could not give, because she was too young as a matter of law--is rape. Call it what it is. Being rigorously honest about the circumstances will help you make a better decision. Don't be making excuses for him by avoiding honest language.

And sex between a much older teacher and an underage student cannot NOT be exploitive, although that is a grayer issue--exploiting the position of power that a teacher has over a student is unethical, and slimy, but not usually a crime.

How close a childhood friend was this guy? Just someone who went to the same school, or someone who had a big part in your life? And yes, he will get out of prison some day--is he someone you would want in your life then? Because he'll probably call you. Would that be a good thing, or a bad thing? It's hard to predict, but know that you might have to deal with it if you get involved in corresponding with him.
posted by Corvid at 12:12 PM on April 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Ok, wow, well given your follow-up, I definitely don't think you should be writing to this guy. You can't save everyone. Practice by not saving him.
posted by hazyjane at 12:20 PM on April 14, 2011 [27 favorites]

You owe him nothing. The particulars of his crime don't change that. The circumstances of his imprisonment don't change that. Similarities to your personal experience don't change that.

You have the opportunity here to be a friend to him, to be compassionate to someone in need, to offer, if nothing else, a listening ear. But you have no obligation to. You could, but there is no should.

Take care of yourself and your loved ones first. Then see what you might have left to spare, and what you might be comfortable sparing on him.
posted by Zozo at 12:22 PM on April 14, 2011

In reading your longer explanation I want to throw a big ol' "It's not your job to save the world!" at you. Despite my earlier encouragement.

If you still want (not "need", not "worry that you're his only lifeline", none of those things) to continue a correspondence with this guy, then I think the first thing you need to do is to lay out, with brutal honesty, your concerns. And you need to think about what you're getting out of this relationship.

People are messed up. People can change. However, there will be messed up people whether or not you get personally involved. If you're the sort of person who has a history of being manipulated by threats of self-harm, you need to protect yourself from messed up people. And today a quarter of a million people will die, and yet life goes on.

If you write to this guy again, brutal honesty is the only way. And make damned sure that you're getting something out of the relationship.
posted by straw at 12:23 PM on April 14, 2011

Best answer: If it's not our job as individuals in society to be there for people who are in need or ostracised, then whose job is it?

Leave this for someone who is less vulnerable than you. If you feel strongly that this guy needs someone to talk to, contact a religious group and ask if they will visit or write to him. I am sure there are some secular groups that do this as well. It is not your duty to continually put yourself at emotional risk. You are not ready to take this on. You will know when you are ready to take something like this on, because you will not feel scared and conflicted.
posted by desjardins at 12:27 PM on April 14, 2011 [12 favorites]

Leave this for someone who is less vulnerable than you.

I second this. Take your wonderful qualities of empathy and compassion and use them in a way that is safe for you -- that means, not on your own with people who trigger you or who push your boundaries. Find a place to volunteer for prisoner's rights, a prison book project or something. Find a group of people to exercise your compassion with, some place where there is structure and leadership and guidance, instead of on your own without support.
posted by yarly at 12:33 PM on April 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

I would not correspond with him. Based on your past, and his ability to manipulate women, he thinks you're a soft touch (even if he's not putting it that bluntly, that's what he thinks.)

I'd bet that his new friends in prison have suggested that he contact as many people on the outside as he can, so he can get money, visitors, etc. Your empathetic nature is a credit to you, but this man's problems aren't yours, and you don't want to take them on.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:37 PM on April 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

I saw Iris Marion Young give a great lecture a few years ago about the ethical dilemma of choosing how to allocate our limited time and resources to the cause of justice. It is a dilemma - everyone's resources are limited, and the need is so great. But based on your follow-up, it sounds like your resources would be better directed to helping another cause or another person right now, and that's okay. I second desjardins and yarly.
posted by EvaDestruction at 1:00 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

This feeling is also what lead me to be there for a guy who repeatedly did terrible things to me and then was very sorry. Very very sorry. So sorry.

Run away. Burn the letters. Get this guy out of your life and get yourself into therapy or a support group or... something. Thus far, you have been a person he can reliably, and without consequences, behave inappropriately towards. It's not wrong to cut someone off if he continually behaves inappropriately toward you. It could even be to his benefit--why would he stop behaving inappropriately if it keeps getting him what he wants? I'm very concerned for you, it sounds like you recognize the pattern here but don't feel like you deserve to break it. You absolutely do, and I hope you can find a way to believe that.
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:06 PM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Given your response, please don't have contact with this person.
posted by purpleclover at 1:19 PM on April 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Given the additional information, it is monumentally challenging to see how your best interests are served by communicating with this person.

And that's what this comes down to: your best interests.

Your best interests.

I can live with a view that it would be polite to send a very brief note relating that you received the letters, cannot respond and must ask that he stop sending them, but I can live with a view that it ain't necessary.
posted by ambient2 at 1:24 PM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Since you want to do something why don't you channel your empathy and energy into volunteering with a group that supports victims of this type of crime.
posted by mmascolino at 1:28 PM on April 14, 2011

The reason it's illegal is that the relationship is de facto unequal and exploitative. If he's still trying to justify his action, tell him you're uncomfortable discussing it because you don't support his actions. People in prison need healthy friends, so corresponding is an act of compassion. If the correspondence is abusive or manipulative in any way, end it.
posted by theora55 at 2:06 PM on April 14, 2011

Given your history and his, the best thing you can do for both of you is to NOT write this person. This has toxic co-dependency written all over it, with a significant dash of boundary violation and manipulation. DO NOT GO THERE.

At most send him a brief note that you are not able to be a correspondent and ask him not to write again.
posted by zia at 2:48 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please, xarnop, do not write to him. I'm sure he does need the help you describe, but you are not the right person to give it. Because of your history, you need to stay well away from users like this. Please. Instead of trying to save everyone else, put the energy into nurturing and healing yourself.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 4:14 PM on April 14, 2011

What zia said. And if/when he ignores your boundaries and keeps sending letters, throw them directly into the trash, unopened. Seriously. You're already messed up enough without opening this can of worms.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:45 PM on April 14, 2011

With your history this isn't just about you and your childhood friend, it's about the connection you're feeling to your past abuse. One common element of the cycle of violence (the abuse-apology-guilt-abuse thing you talk about in your response) is that you feel responsible for things that are really in no way your fault. What happened to you before is not your fault, and it's not your responsibility to fix or heal things for this other guy now. He alone is responsible for where he is and the actions that brought him there. You don't owe him letters that it makes you uncomfortable to write.

Hearing about a similar story, or connecting with a person that reminds you of your past can be traumatizing. If you want to talk about these dynamics and how these letters are bringing up difficult feelings for you, there are anonymous support lines out there for exactly this kind of thing (look for sexual assault or women's crisis lines). You are so strong to have survived what you've been through, and taking care of yourself is most important right now. It sounds like part of you feeling safe is being able to choose to keep your distance and privacy when it comes to this guy. Trust your instincts about your own safety and what you need.
posted by Atalanta at 8:24 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm reduced to the feelings I had while with that guy

Seeing others in pain sounds traumatizing to you. You don't have to soothe his pain. You can't; no one can. So you might be best served if you do not expose yourself to his pain.

If it's not our job as individuals in society to be there for people who are in need or ostracised, then whose job is it? So many people fall through the cracks. I can't stand letting people fall through the cracks.

This guy did not fall through the cracks or get ostracized. He is with a group of other people, in jail, where a court sent him, presumably where he belongs. He probably has a roommate and a friend or two. He is being fed and clothed by the state. Jail is not great but it sounds like you are describing something different.
posted by salvia at 9:46 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You're right salvia. I have lived a large portion of my life feeling in pain and isolated so I worry too much and I have a hard time differentiating between being messed up--- and messed up AND hurting people.

But I am so messed up myself that it gets quite mixed up. I did therapy that was basically the opposite of regression therapy "Never think about this again and if you do you are abusing yourself so stop"

Which I liked better than the idea of sitting around talking about miserable stuff and drowning. I think I had a lot more to work out than what I actually talked about in therapy which was nothing because we couldn't talk about the past at all because that would have meant abusing myself thinking about bad things.

It was actually pretty messed up and I don't really want to go to any more therapy but I guess I should think about it. I'm kind of worried about going to some domestic violence place and having someone be like, "Ok talk about all the messed up" and then I'll just be overwhelmed. I still have to be in contact with a lot of the people ----------- and so it's this weird dynamic in my life where I have these like, normal relationships with people that did messed up stuff.

Sorry if I'm not making sense, I'm a bit overwhelmed. I just talked to a good friend for a while and I think I have some good ideas. I thank all of you for sharing your thoughts. It really has helped me more than you know.
posted by xarnop at 10:59 PM on April 14, 2011

No, it makes a lot of sense. You have been through some tough stuff. I'm glad to hear your friends are helping you out.

I have had a lot of conversations with that guy and I have been there for him while he grappled with the aftermath of what happened in our relationship.

Is there someone who could be there for you as you do your own grappling with the relationship and its aftermath?
posted by salvia at 11:43 PM on April 14, 2011

You may want to consider therapy with someone who specializes in trauma.

I am a trauma survivor myself, and I bounced from random therapist to recommended therapist to random therapist for years. I tried very hard, but when I talked about my past, I always felt like we were raising demons that the therapist didn't understand or really know how to put down. It either accomplished nothing or made things worse.

Now I work with someone who actually understands what trauma survivors go through. I didn't even know that such therapists existed! It is a whole different world. If you want to memail me, I can probably provide some resources.
posted by gentian at 5:49 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you'd like for there to be some kind of unobvious option that would let you help him and also act to protect you from him. I don't think there is.

It sounds like you realize that no matter what you do, there's the potential (likelihood?) for bad consequences. It sounds like you've had more than your fair share of these no-win decisions. Sorry. You have to make a decision based on the most subtle of factors, maybe at random, because the pot's not in the same currency as the ante.

You can choose to risk his emotional safety rather than your own. There's nothing wrong with that. Yours is worth at least as much as his is. (I think it's worth a lot more, but he's not in front of me.) You can't risk yourself non-stop-- at the very least, you end up without anything left when somebody else really, really needs it.

You can also risk your own well-being. There's nothing wrong with that either. But it's got to be a conscious decision-- you've got to know, "Yeah, I'm gong to do this, and it could hurt me." It could. I think that consciousness one of the differences between this situation and the things you talk about from your past.

I think we should be there for each other, even when it's hard.

I think that's wonderful. But we can't always do it, or there's nothing left. It's like, yeah, there are a million good causes competing for your money, but you need a little bit yourself, and for the people you care about, and for a rainy day, and besides, you can't fund all of those good causes. So you got to pick some and leave some. Pick some and leave a lot, really.

I don't know how much help you're going to get from other people on this. (Almost?) everyone here feels the same: we should be there for each other, even when it's hard. But you're the one who's here, who people are trying to be there for. As long as you're here, we all want for you to be healthy and happy, first and foremost. So you're going to hear from a lot of people who want only your protection.

But you're smart. And you're the only person who can figure out when and if you're willing to risk yourself, to get hurt.

Whatever you decide to do, it will be the right decision. There'll be pain, there'll be consequences, but it'll be the right decision. And even though these decisions are so hard to make, the fact that you're making them, that you're considering the options-- not running to, "Oh poor baby!" or to "Gotta look after numero uno!"-- is the mark of somebody unusually fully human, and I hope you manage to hold on to that for a long time.
posted by nathan v at 4:30 PM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't want to cut people off. I don't want to leave people hanging. I don't want to leave people with no one who believes in them, because what kind of a society is that? I think we should be there for each other, even when it's hard. If it's not our job as individuals in society to be there for people who are in need or ostracised, then whose job is it? So many people fall through the cracks. I can't stand letting people fall through the cracks.

I really understand.

Here's something to think about:

It sounds like you're thinking about writing to him in order to help him - be there for him. When you imagine NOT doing that, you imagine that no one else will.

But you don't know who else is in his life, and you don't know - nobody knows - the future. Maybe there's an Amy Hammel-Zabin, like Brina mentioned, who will become a listener for this guy. Maybe he's already writing to someone who can offer him some understanding.

You feel like it HAS to be you, because if you don't do this, no one else will.

But consider: you don't know that that's true.

I was once in a situation where an old friend really needed help. I gave her some help, then some more, and then I wasn't able to offer any more help. I felt utterly terrible. She had no one else to turn to.

But then, not long after, she did find someone else to help her. She and her family managed to reconcile and they were able to help her in ways that I couldn't.

When you imagine not replying, how do things look if you imagine someone else coming in and responding to this man's need? It's possible that by NOT replying, you're actually giving him a reason to continue reaching out to other people and finding the person who's really suited to being the link to the outside world he's looking for.

And while you're imagining things, what happens if you imagine someone who's fully and completely there for you? Someone who understands and cares about all the pain and isolation you've felt and wants to take care of you and offer you a safe friendship that doesn't demand anything of you?
posted by kristi at 9:52 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That was lovely Krisit. I'm sort of at that place, many of you might know it, where you're like... hmmm. I have some issues.


I have found that in general with advice like this, any binary answer never feels right, "Get rid of the person, they aren't your responsability!".

I have done a lot of soul searching about it and ultimately, I find that I want to participate in a world where we be believe in having social responsability to each other and not only ourselves. I also believe that everyone should be safe and protected so it's hard to figure out how I want my beliefs to translate in interacting with people who may not be capable (or interested) in behaving in a safe way.

I really deeply deeply appreciate all the suggestions about ways to keep both of these belief systems in tact (personal safety, and compassion for humanity).

In the course of this I've also realized how much of wanting to help others be ok was quite literally an act of seeking personal safety. I was not safe and quite literally with such people still in my life in some respect, those negotioations of choosing the option that will lead to the most emotional stability (and least risk of the person acting out and putting me in danger) are still a part of my life. This doesn't mean I don't also genuinely believe in being there for people simply for the sake of it, as I completely believe in that as well, but I think it's important to know exactly why you're wanting to help a particular person. Wanting to help someone so they don't go crazy and physically attack you, is obviously not the same thing as wanting to make sure they have the support they need simply for their benefit. (Although neither are inherently wrong and I think you can do both, but self honesty is important for you and the other person. )

I'm DEFINITELY not a good support person for this guy for all of the above reasons and probably plenty more. Including that I will definately see him when he gets out (mutal friends with his family, I see his kids and mom at family gatherings.) And that he has been interested in me before. And he can easily find my address which makes me feel a bit nervous. That doesn't mean I don't want him to have support or that if under certain circumstances where I knew FOR SURE that no one else would help and there was truly a crisis I could assist with I might not make an exception.

However I think I still think in terms of these situations being a terrible crisis with huge amounts of need and little support when that's not necessarily the case. So I'm misinterpereting the amount of need that may be present in the situation.

Anyway, while I'm wondering why exactly I didn't make this anonymous, whatever LOL. Hello people of metafilter, I have issues, nice to meet you all! LOL

Thank you everyone for your very thoughtful responses. Again, it really really has been helpful for me.
posted by xarnop at 11:28 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

how much of wanting to help others be ok was quite literally an act of seeking personal safety

That's a great insight. Good for you. It sounds like the more you protect yourself from dangerous people, the less you'll feel like you need to help them as a way of protecting yourself, and not helping them will then leave you even more protected...
posted by salvia at 12:08 PM on April 16, 2011

« Older What should I do about people who flake on me?   |   Stop Chrome from adding extra tab when opening... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.