Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Annual Wildlife Post—Why Bugs Freak Us Out

At dusk the drone of the cicadas is deafening. For a species that theoretically only spawns every three to five years, this annual event puzzles Chicagoans. We're confused because we hide from the elements most of the year so any summertime visual/auditory arousal throws us off.

My 8-year old grandson takes the cicada fertility boon as an opportunity to collect molted shells, the exoskeletons. He’s delighted with this process. To add to the wonderment of it all, his aunt bought him a plastic bug farm for live insects. I told her that one day, when she has grandchildren, I'll try to return the favor.

But even an 8-year old can’t take the sight of maggots eating through the head of a dead bird. Master Scientist comes running to inform me, after my Saturday nap:
"Bubbie, you’re not going to believe this! On the deck, in a flower pot, is a dead bird! A very large, dead, black bird! And his head is only a skeleton! The worms are eating him. You have to see this!"
I’m sick at the thought, pass on the demonstration, and he totally understands. The culprit is West Nile Virus, or bird flu, some such plague. Black crows are dropping from the sky. You see them in the parks, quite dead, if you look carefully. This is an opportunity for my daughter, a good Jewish mother, to teach her son, “Now you have to be SURE to wash your hands when you touch bugs. You could catch the sickness, too.”

This is probably where it begins, I'm thinking, the female aversion to bugs, for it does seem to be associated with women, the EEEK, thing. Generations of prejudice against things that crawl, for no one likes anything crawling on the skin, and the fear of disease. Perhaps there is also a fear of the unknown, a fear of invasion. They are small. They're fast. They hide. Who can keep up with them?

But honest. They’re so small, bugs. We can kill them fairly easily. Seven in one blow, if necessary. And RAID is amazing, has subdued many a crawling or flying six-legged monster.

A person can't let them get the psychological upper hand. You just can't. Even in quantity, they're still just bugs. I can say this because aside from a few spiders and a few ants, resident centipedes and water bugs, my house is bug free. If there were other, strange, territorial, hard-to-kill bugs, I'd probably move.

We're supposed to be tolerant, I guess, and loving. But last week we were playing a little tennis near a city garden and a bee stung my hand as I reached for a lost ball. It was a little bee, an aggressive bugger, and I got angry because I had been trying to teach the kids what I learned from the book, The Secret Life of Bees (fabulous, Sue Monk Kidd, that if you love them, bees, they won’t hurt you. Send them love.

Rubbish. Do not believe this.

Once I had a friend who told me a bug story. Her mother ridiculed her for being afraid of bugs, and she didn't even have a fear of bugs, not in the plural. It was one particular bug that threw her off her game, a big indestructible thing.

None of us like the indestructible ones.

I have a fond memory of waking up to the sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear, me trying to rouse my parents from their sleep. My mother groggily inspires me, "You can do this, I know you can. Turn on the light, track him down, and kill him." She didn't like mice, particularly, but there wasn't a bug she couldn't dispose of with alacrity. Once I mastered mosquito detection, it was a short step to swatting and murdering the bloody things.

So why the bug phobia, you asked, didn't you? I think that the EEEK! thing is a combination of what we've already said, they're small, they could go anywhere, but we should add the functionality of the behavior, see it, sometimes, as a coy female reaction that begs male attention. Bring out the club, caveman. We have roaches.

This vulnerability is modeled by a woman's mother, a woman who assigned the job, killing house bugs, to a man. Not all that different than Do the lawn, dear, it's grown to my knees. It is endearing when they come to the rescue, and gives the fellow something easy to do, something less taxing than the lawn. Some swat with a bare hand.

My daughter didn't see a bug-killing role division, for if you remember, bugs didn't blow my own mother away. So theoretically, knowing how transgenerational these things can be, my daughter shouldn't have shrieked this morning when she opened her laptop to find an ant. She shrieked once, then she shrieked again when she saw another. I brought out the RAID, but she blamed herself for letting the kids eat terrible sticky things while playing Club Penguin (the Facebook entry drug).

The shriek, we concurred, was associated with the thought of insects devouring the inside of her Mac. A fairly good reason to fear them.

Now, if I hear a drone from inside that thing at dusk? Something's going to have to give.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Words Hit as Hard As a Fist

We've talked about conflict and intimacy avoidance in other posts, how we learn from the examples set by our parents. It isn't rocket science, but there are subtleties.

Those of us raised in affectionate families sometimes find physical intimacy the easiest thing in the world; it's difficult to conceive of life without it. Feed us with love and we love back, cringe at anger. Some of us develop an allergy to anger to the degree that we'll walk out of films, change the channel on the television when the volume feels too much.

Those who suffered violence in the home, as opposed to peace-love as children, can be conflict-avoidant, too. Others identify with the aggressor and are consciously aggressive. There are many variations here, including one in which two people are drawn to one another, feel they're soul mates because they both grew up in violent homes of one type or another.

But expectations are everything in a relationship, and expecting a partner to be a peace-nik when you want him to be a peace-nik, just because he should, in your opinion, be conflict-aversive, having grown up with so much conflict, doesn't make it so. If you think about it, logically it makes sense that one of the two should be good with conflict, and the other, not-so-good. Laws of chance.

And when that happens, things get pretty wild. Let's pretend the person comfortable with conflict is a guy, and the person who is conflict-avoidant is a woman. (Substitute genders at will).

The assumption on her end is that he gets it, this soul mate of hers, that she's had enough insults or sarcasm to last a lifetime. She's thinking that he, too, doesn't want to raise his voice or hear her yell, that he won't want to behave like his parents behaved. He understands.

Yet he's hardened off, is immune to verbal and physical violence. The continuum of violence is what is meaningful to him. A jab, a joke, a minor insult shouldn't hurt. It's a left-handed insult; or sarcasm, no big deal. A good fight, even, no big thing, nothing to fear; it's something to win.

Whereas she truly could be overly sensitive. Negative communication might hurt her to the degree that she feels re-traumatized. She's already too bruised, can't handle any more bruises, emotional or not.
Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. His refrain. Doesn't she get that?
For him it has become something of habit, rising to the offensive under pressure, and it is hard for him to change, even if she has called him on his words, told him how much they hurt.

She's disappointed in him, is the truth, which depresses him. He senses it. She's disappointed that he hasn't changed, for she has said something to that effect on numerous occasions. But she doesn't yell about it, doesn't punctuate in the way that he's used to people yelling when they want to make a point. So he doesn't hear, doesn't respond, and out of nowhere, he spontaneously cuts her with words, especially if he's feeling attacked.

She'll walk away, get some fresh air, won't even say,
You know, Words hit as hard as a fist. Watch what you say.
That's the tagline for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, highlights a poster that a patient once stole for me. She took it off a bus. I've had it for thirty years.

This is a simple family therapy. We revisit both childhoods, talk about feelings, explore the intimacy avoidance characteristic of the behavior of both partners.

What's amazing to me is how long some couples endure this pattern without insisting it change. You would think the conflict avoider would explode, at some point, for exploding is necessary, to make the point. It is most typical that a child will bring a couple like this to therapy, will think of some way, act out, carry a symptom. It can take a good while for anger to become the motif of that treatment. The anger management is eventually requested, interestingly, by both partners, and begins with old fashioned insight, psycho-dynamic psychotherapy, reaching into childhood.

Only after that, will the cognitive-behavioral strategies really work, the self-relaxation, the breathing, integrating a positive parent figure, the one we all want to be. There are a host of anger management techniques. They don't work, not until you get to the root and yank it out, because it is primitive anxiety that drives the conflict as well as the conflict avoidance.

You can't really apply a band-aid to the deep stuff is the truth.