I was talking to someone recently about the astoundingly ignorant response of “Why didn’t they just leave?” that people give sometimes in response to things like abusive relationships or cults or toxic friendships and things of that nature – and how people who have never been in those situations like to convince themselves that they would surely have walked away. They would never have allowed that to happen to them. They can’t be brainwashed or manipulated.
(The correct response is: Yes, you can. We all can. There is not a single person among the billions-strong herd of us who cannot be manipulated.)
That triggered a thought process, because I’ve been one of those “why did you just leave” people who actually had someone ask me that. I’m long past the situation I needed to leave but…it had its ramifications. Such as patterns. I ended up in one outright abusive relationship, and many more that were in some way toxic or just not good for me.
In my years of reflection on these matters, of dissecting and analyzing and screaming and writing and cocooning and lashing out and panic and ethereal calm, I’ve come to a conclusion about why those of us who come out of those situations often replicate them –
It’s because we were conditioned to endure.
Anyone can be lured, if you have the right tools. Even adults. Even people who are well-educated and intelligent. Even people who have the resources to leave if they want to. Anyone can be lured.
The process of grooming and conditioning someone to give in is simultaneously a process of teaching someone to endure. To go along with, to stay, to keep returning, even when you know it’s toxic and wrong, even when you’re scared, even when you feel it chipping away at you. You get good at it. In the words of Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction – “You fight through that shit.”
That strange talent for endurance, for some of us, comes with a hefty helping of hope – that you’ll be seen, that you’ll be understood, that the person wake up and suddenly begin a self-reflective process of realization. For some of us, endurance comes with a side of martyring – if I put myself in the way, if I absorb it, then no one else will be hurt.
(I wrote and shelved a book about the martyr that exists inside some of us who have endured. I don’t mean to sound like I’m blaming the endurer – I’m not. It’s just that sometimes we endure because we think we’re protecting someone, and that’s rarely the case.)
Point is, there are various phenomena that prop up endurance. Sometimes it’s simply stubbornness – I will outlast you. I will not let you break me.
The thing about this sort of endurance is that once you learn it, once it’s inside you, it’s hard to stop doing it. It’s woven into your core, it’s your chemistry, it’s how you’re wired. So even once the threat has passed, even once you’re in a healthier and happier place, that innate endurance is still there.
And so you repeat patterns: You stay too long, you overlook things, you indulge what you ought to shut down, you fight when you ought to walk away. In other words, you keep tangling with ghosts. Sometimes you go back, sometimes you get found, and then you endure. Even when you know you shouldn’t. Even when you clearly see what’s going on.
I was conditioned to endure a certain type of emotional vampire. It’s my hidden talent.
You know the types…the ones who have some sort of Overarching Narrative that influences everything they do. The obsessive types. The perpetual victims. The nauseatingly self-involved.
I find these people all have one thing in common: They’re all stuck in narratives that they play and replay on a loop. It’s a bit like the show Westworld, where AI characters are programmed to stay in a narrative loop with slight variations but no ability to actually break free of it. It’s the same narrative and versions of the narrative over and over and over.
I’ve watched these narratives for years in some cases, and sometimes I get sucked in. Sometimes I’m a willing viewer, a player in their own personal play, a character that they can direct because sometimes, to be honest, the things people will construct are damn fascinating. And the thing about having the ability to endure plus having the mind of a researcher is that stay around because you’re always wondering – What is this thing? Can it change? Can it evolve? Does it ever resolve? Do they ever step outside their narratives? What happens if I don’t respond? What happens if I shatter the damn thing?
(The answer to that last one is – they’ll just put it right back together, like it was never shattered to begin with. They’ll never acknowledge the cracks or contradictions. I very rudely shattered one a few months ago. A few weeks later, the vampire was back in my DMs as if nothing ever happened. They’re a weird mix of delusion and resiliency.)
And after years of observation and endurance, I’ve realized that at the core, the narrative-builders often can’t escape their creation. It’s their sense of self, it’s their view of the world. If you ever do manage to undermine it, may the gods and universe have mercy on your soul, because they’d rather destroy you than let you destroy their precious creation.
Sometimes the narrators seem unaware of this. Sometimes they have some level of awareness, but an inability or a refusal to step outside of it. The latter are the most fascinating to me, as they have also been built to endure – to hold on until the narrative gives them what they want.
I can walk away easily from the controlling types, the ones who have to be right, the ones who refuse to believe in science, the ones who just won’t listen to or see anything that’s not pure confirmation bias. The ones I attract are usually caught in stories that can’t exist in real life, because life has limits that stories don’t. That’s why we love stories, isn’t it? Because dragons are real and we can fly.
But sometimes people can’t accept that life simply can’t be like that. So they indulge in fantasy and suffer from depression, anxiety, lack of fulfillment. They get stuck in echo chambers with other people who live in the same narrative and they obsess on these narrative elements. The memes, the storyboards, the clever quotes floating on a black background with no context other than the one they place on top of it. The movies and shows they watch over and over, the songs they play o repeat, the “meta” and the constant search for riddles and hidden messages that only they can see.
They don’t mean to be abusive, and would likely be shocked to be classified that way, but when they begin trying to pull their narratives into their life, they cast those around them into roles. They seek out others who want to bring those narratives to live. And they do so at the expense of others, as they get so invested in the narrative that they don’t care what emotional toll it takes on you – all they care about is that you say the right lines, in the right way, at the right time.
Who you actually are? That doesn’t matter to them. Your purpose isn’t to be a real person. Your purpose is to prop up their narrative – at your own expense. They don’t want to sacrifice or be in any way uncomfortable or inconvenienced – that’s your job. (For a fictional study in this, in which the one enduring strikes out at the narrative only to find she has to maintain the narrative, read Social Creatures.)
Here’s my confession: I don’t want to be the companion to other people’s narratives anymore. I don’t want to play out the same story over and over – if you can’t evolve, I can’t stay.
I will lay these ghosts to rest. I will accept that the nature of a ghost is to linger. These living ghosts don’t evolve.
I acknowledge and accept that I need evolution. I need new narratives, or at least the next chapter.
I have become bored with looped narratives and those who cling to them.
I will use my endurance in other ways. Channel more of it into writing. Into things I want to learn more about. Into waiting out the things we all have to wait out. Into tolerating the things we can’t immediately change. I didn’t ask for this ability, but it’s what I was given, and I get to choose what I lend it to.
I’m feel-it-in-my-bones tired of prescribed roles that I can never break out of because the person controlling the narrative doesn’t see me – they see a blank palette on which to project a character that doesn’t actually exist. I don’t need to be a screen for others to project onto. I need to stop stepping into this role. I need to say no to any sequels that may come my way in the future.
Much like ghosts, these types don’t exist without us bringing their narratives to life. That’s why they work so hard to make you stay. That’s why they keep coming back. That’s why they learn to manipulate and draw people in. They can’t exist without people like me.
But here’s the sweet, pulpy secret underneath that hard thorny shell: We can exist without them.