We prickly thistles: in praise of problematic people.

Thistle by Suzanne Forbes Jan 27 2016

I hadn’t done a large, detailed embroidery piece in a while, so I decided to do a botanical.

And then I got interested in weeds, and prickly plants. I chose a thistle specifically, because it’s the symbol of Scotland, where my amazing mom was born, because they are beautiful and because some are poisonous, some nutritious.

Plus, thistles are the favorite food of the world’s only adorable depressive, Eeyore.

The last year has made me think a lot about how we judge people’s “undesirable” qualities. One of my beloved ex-boyfriends was here visiting in September, and I was telling him about some horrible thing I used to do when I was using. “I’m glad I didn’t know you then. I don’t think we would have been friends.” “I wasn’t nice“, I said ruefully. “I can’t imagine that.”, he said.

I was glad he considered niceness such a natural part of my character now, since becoming nicer has been one of my primary goals for the last twenty-seven years. But what he said made me sad. It seemed like a disservice to the incredible people who were brave enough and injudicious enough to love me when I wasn’t nice. There were a lot of them, and they saved my life a thousand times.

My oldest and dearest friend Victoria has known me at depth and loved me since I was an enraged, bitter, foulmouthed, shoplifting eight-year-old. She has loved me through her 21st birthday, when I did so many drugs the paramedics had to revive me before I could go to her party, even though I promised I wouldn’t be high on her birthday.

She loved me enough to say to me, in her maid of honor dress, in the fairy-tale carriage on the way to the church, “You don’t have to go through with this, you know.”

Does someone like me deserve a friend that good? I was a terrible girlfriend to good boys; I hit at least three of my boyfriends that I can remember, and I think I cheated on every single one. Usually with their best friends. I lied endlessly to my mother, whose shelter and protection was the only thing that kept me alive in an absurdly high-risk lifestyle, and crept into her bedroom to steal from her purse at night. I disappointed my teachers, whose guidance was the central force in my development as an artist.

I gave the boy I should have married drugs that killed him, and I still miss him every day.

I broke the heart of another boy who wanted to marry me, and I still miss him every day, though he lives happily with his wife in Seattle, doing martial arts with his kids and restoring their Victorian. I betrayed the trust of doctors and therapists who tried to care for me. I stole food and booze every single day for years. I had sex with underage boys and girls and gave them drugs and alcohol. I hurt the people I loved the most on a daily basis, for years.

And the really fucked up thing is, it didn’t all stop when I got sober.

I didn’t stop cheating on my boyfriends til I was over a year sober; I haven’t hit anyone since I got sober, but at four years sober I grabbed my first husband and threw him up against the fridge. It took me years to stop stealing small bits of food. I ran up credit cards and had to spend years paying them off with Consumer Credit Counseling.

My own brother has a daughter I’ve never met, because he stopped speaking to me back in ’98.

I can’r really blame him. I was a terrifying, nightmare sister, and it takes a rare family member to truly accept that someone you have known from babyhood can change. I lied to my editor on Star Trek, who I worshipped, because my crippling depression meant I was constantly running behind on my deadlines. I had to file bankruptcy in the early aughts because of my IRS debt. I was a verbal abuser and a bully to both my first and second husbands; I used compulsive shopping to medicate the pain of the relationships til sometimes we barely had money for food.

And my flashing furious temper cost me the friendship of a man who was one of the little brothers I always wanted; no amends I made could fix the relationship, and it is the greatest loss of my adult life. That’s something I’ve learned, going around to stores in New York to pay them back for things I stole and finding the owner changed: sometimes you can’t make amends. Some things you can’t fix.

But you can try. I have three jobs in life, since January 27, 1989. Wake up in the morning and try to stay sober that day, try to be a goddam better person that day, and then maybe make some art if I can. It gets easier to do better. My role models help. The vast majority of my friends and partners have always been much better, gentler people than me; it’s aspirational selection. I love niceness. I have a good boy fetish, not a bad boy fetish.

I have managed to spend five years with my third husband without ever belittling, shaming or abusing him. I have never even raised my voice or used hurtful language to him. I have managed to be kind and reliable to my friends consistently for years. I have learned to pay my bills (mostly) and show up on time for jobs (mostly). I just don’t go to the supermarket or the post office on the couple days a month when I can’t be trusted not to be a fucking rude bitch, because I’m tired of having to go back and apologize later.

I’ve come to believe you don’t have to be good to deserve to live; you just have to want to be better enough to try.

Dracula by Jon J. Muth

“Father- I’ve done…questionable things-” from Dracula by Jon J. Muth

Right now another young man who’s like a little brother to me is in trouble back in the Bay. He’s in the community stockade for his bad behaviour. I wish I could be there, to love him even if he’s done shitty things.

I wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t loved me even though I did questionable things. I don’t discard David Bowie because he slept with fifteen-year-old groupies or said reckless things about Hitler.

Arthur Chu, a writer I like a lot, recently said some good things about the imperfection of people.

He talks about how Janus-like our qualities are; how the worst things we do are sometimes part of the best of who we are.

My mom, whose wisdom I value more than anyone’s in the world, said something interesting to me about all the things that are fucked up about me.

She didn’t say it like that, of course, but she said those obsessive, difficult, compulsive, aggressive traits that have bought me so much trouble were also strengths that carried me through the terrible, exhausting move to Berlin and the crazy housing search.

I heard someone else refer to the unpleasant qualities of the alcoholic/addict personality as a survival tool kit for dysfunctional family living. The tools may not be very desirable or attractive in adult life, but it can be hard to shake the ones that continue to serve you. I try to remember that all I can do is keep growing.

And I remind myself, I was being the very best that I could be with the self I had at that moment.

I once had dinner at Chez Panisse with my second husband; I had nettle pasta and he had long-cooked beef ragout, the gristle softened into gelatin. Here in Berlin, I had nettle soup again, made of weeds gathered by the road in Friedrichshain. Weeds have their uses, and their beauty; tonight I have been clean and sober 27 years.

5 thoughts on “We prickly thistles: in praise of problematic people.

  1. Mer

    Thank you for this.

    I think it is vitally important to respect and honor all beings as worthy of healing, redemption, and love. I also believe it is absolutely vital to respect and honor the validity of the feelings of those who *cannot* actively be there for, or physically around, an abusive person in immediate crisis. Habitually shaming or dismissing the feelings of multiple survivors of someone who repeats a clear pattern of sexualized and gendered abuse (emotional or physical) is what can often lead, eventually, to a community “stockading” such as the one you’ve described.

    In the meantime, I’m glad for both our sakes, that loving our cherished baby brother-in-spirit from a distance, each in our own way, is not only absolutely possible, but reflexive. <3

    Reply
    1. Suzanne Forbes Post author

      I agree completely that we must honor the feelings and safety of those who cannot, and should not, be around a person who is actively abusing.

      You’ll notice this post never mentions my father. In fact, my writing rarely mentions my father, except for the occasional tweet after a nightmare. The reason I don’t talk about my father is there’s nothing to be said beyond: he is an abusive, manipulative narcissist addict who damaged me profoundly, AND he has never been accountable for it.

      My mother made terrible parenting choices that grievously endangered me in the grip of her alcoholism, but then she got sober, immediately became profoundly accountable, and has remained in a state of continuous growth and healing, for both of us, ever since. It’s a big difference. I forgive her and hope she forgives herself every day, and she is my greatest inspiration. Even though she annoys me when she sends me some email chain about “watch out for those people who steal your kidney”.

      I made amends to my father, for lying and stealing his money, drugs and liquor, long ago, so my side of the street was cleaned up. Then I was done, unless and until he should choose to become a safe person by becoming accountable and practising recovery. So I haven’t seen him for 27 years.

      I don’t know what “giving people time to sort themselves out” “should” look like. I think everything is different for everyone. All I know is that we get to choose what’s right for us.

      Reply
  2. Victoria Aronoff

    Suzanne– that piece you wrote about being “problematic”was incredible. It made me cry. I have never held any of those things against you. I love you in spite of them. im so sorry I wasn’t around when you were going through difficult times. You are the person in the world I feel most comfortable with. I never feel any judgement from you. You are the key to my best and wackiest childhood memories. I miss you. Let’s try to Skype soon. Love Victoria

    Reply
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