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Chris Listens: Abusive Boyfriends, Inexplicable Anger, and the Secret to Staying Happy (Maybe)

Chris Listens: Abusive Boyfriends, Inexplicable Anger, and the Secret to Staying Happy (Maybe)

Today is the Friday the 13th. If you're superstitious, you should probably stay away from ladders, black cats, mirrors, and goalie masks. Unless you’re playing hockey, of course, in which case maybe you should go with the mask. Otherwise you might get a puck to the eye socket and the Friday the 13th curse would become all too real.

Speaking of things getting too real (killer segue, right?), when life gets too real for me, I like to take a step back and breathe for a second. Sometimes I even take off my goalie mask and think, "Wow, I can see a lot better without this thing on my face." Then I put it back on and step forward, back into the madness of existence. If you're ever feeling overwhelmed, don't be afraid to do take a step back. And not just on mysterious quasi-holidays, either. This technique should work just as well on Wednesday the 25th or Tuesday the 1st. Now, on to your fantastically real questions:

My best friend is trapped in an abusive relationship. He's never struck her. It's not physical abuse. But he is very emotionally abusive. He knows exactly what buttons to press to get her to do what he wants her to do, and he sees no problem in using them. She's broken up with him a couple of times, but she always ends up back with him. He scares her into thinking he'll do something to himself if she stays broken up with him. The worst part is, he's proven that he's not lying. The last time that she broke up with him he told her that he refused to live without her, and then when that didn't stop her he attempted suicide. His parents discovered him and had him hospitalized before it was too late, but the fact that he was willing to go that far scares me. And she's completely blind to his faults. Or when she does notice them she completely pushes them aside. He also tries to control her, and often he succeeds. He controls what kind of clothes she wears, who she hangs out with, what time she hangs out with them, what kind of food she eats when they are together, etc. There are times that she stands up for herself, and I'm proud of her when she does, but more often than not, she doesn't. Her parents know about their relationship, and they've tried to stop it, but she doesn't listen. And they're big pushovers, so they often give in to her, anyway. She's 18, so unless she does something to stop it, the school can't do anything, even if they wanted to. I know that it has to be her decision, or any end between them won't stick, but I'm worried sick about her. Both of them know I don't like her boyfriend, too, and it has seriously strained our friendship. She's stopped talking to me about it. She's more like my sister than my best friend, and I want to help, but I don't know what to do.

I’m glad you’re worried about your friend—from what you describe, you have a right to be concerned about her boyfriend’s manipulative tendencies. However, it sounds like you are doing all you can short of sitting your friend down and explicitly describing all the trouble signs you’ve observed. But as you mentioned regarding your already-strained friendship, she may not take your intervention in a positive way. She may feel that you are meddling and that she is an adult and that it’s none of your business. And she’s entitled to feel that way, just as you are entitled to be concerned. I think you have two options right now. The first option is to let things be and hope that she eventually realizes what kind of unhealthy relationship she’s in. It may be hard to distance yourself from the situation, but you can’t let her problems become the focus of your life. The second option is to try a few small things: 1. be extraordinarily supportive every time she stands up for herself, 2. periodically ask her if she needs to talk about anything, and 3. remind her that you are there for her if she needs anything. You probably need her to come to you at this point, but it doesn’t hurt to reestablish the reasons for your friendship and let her know that you want to be supportive, even if you don’t specifically mention the issue at hand. If that strategy doesn’t work and you still don’t want to sit idly by and watch this disaster unfold, I think you are allowed to make one last-ditch attempt to keep her out of danger by clearly outlining the detrimental aspects of her relationship. Good luck!

I guess you probably get this a lot from teenagers, but here goes: for about the past year I feel like I've been losing control of my life. One of the biggest problems is anger. The thing is, I don't know what I'm angry about. I don't know how to talk about it and it seems like I'm never in a good mood, so I avoid talking to people, but avoiding any contact makes me depressed. Since I don't really know what I'm angry at, I don't know how to solve it. I don't really know who I'm supposed to be—I feel like I've lost all sense of identity. Any of my hobbies or stuff like that I've stopped because now I don't really know what I like. I don't really have a “thing” anymore, so I don't know what I'm supposed to be working for; I feel kind of pointless. I hate thinking self-destructive thoughts but it seems like that is how I can deal with it. It feels like I'm going to explode or something, and that scares me. What do I do?

I think the anger you are feeling is probably pretty normal. In my experience, most teenagers (myself included) go through a period of inexplicable turmoil. For example, in eighth and ninth grade, I pretty much hated all people and was cynical about seemingly everything, from school to my own interests to my friends. After about a year, I kinda got over it, for seemingly no apparent reason. Teenagers go through a lot of physical and emotional changes, and with your hormones going crazy and your personality still forming, it’s easy for things to get out of whack. The problem, of course, is what to do about it. Hopefully identifying that this is a natural occurrence will help, and make it less worrisome overall. But you can also implement specific tactics to help you deal. For one thing, do not avoid human contact—I recommend hanging out with your friends on the regular, because socializing, in general, is a mood-improver. Secondly, it’s okay if you don’t have a “thing” anymore—now’s the time when you can find a new thing. Don’t think of it as something you’ve lost, think of it as an opportunity to do something fresh. When you start feeling pointless or go off on a self-destructive tangent, check yourself and try to decipher what triggered that emotion. Then you can address the trigger in a positive way. And of course, if you feel inordinately depressed or suicidal or that your negative feelings will never ever ever go away, you should talk to a therapist or parent or teacher about it. However, I think you’re at a point where you can try a few things before taking that step. Take care!

I am writing this to you because no one else will listen or have a better answer. I have a weight issue... more like a non-issue. My BMI is right where it's supposed to be, at 20. But people still call me fat. And when I look at myself, I'm not convinced that they are wrong. Maybe it's the way my body is shaped, but even my doctor looks at me funny. But they can't tell me to lose weight because then they would be encouraging me to be unhealthy. I eat the way I am supposed to and I exercise perfectly. So if I'm doing everything right, why am I considered fat in everyone's eyes? I am a size four in clothes and have a perfect BMI! I know you'll tell me to go talk to my parents or a trusted adult or a counselor. My parents call me fat and encourage me to eat less to lose those "extra pounds." I go to a Christian private school that doesn't believe in counselors, because Christ is supposed to be the great counselor and you're supposed to talk to your parents about stuff. My parents also don't believe in shrinks. So I have no access to one and I don't have a “trusted adult” to talk to. It's like people are encouraged to "be healthy" but then chastised for not being underweight. Help?

OK, so you already know this, but let me say it anyway: YOU ARE NOT FAT. The problem is that the entertainment, fashion, and beauty industries have brainwashed people into thinking that any woman who isn’t 5’11” and skeleton-thin is overweight. This is simply not the case. It’s very frustrating that people think this way, because as you stated, you are healthy right now. Weighing less would actually be bad for your body. I am very happy to hear that you are eating right and exercising regularly—that’s great. And I know this is going to sound like crazy advice, but please don’t listen to your parents. It troubles me that they are calling you fat and the truth is you don’t have any extra pounds to lose. And even if you did, so what? Everybody has a weight that’s right for them, and forcing yourself to be unnaturally thin is counterproductive. What’s important is that you feel good and that you are happy with how you look. I know this is a tall order, but try not to be influenced by other people’s skewed perceptions. As far as talking to someone goes, it's your right to reach out for help if you think you need it. I would recommend talking to a therapist or other confidante about your parents’ unfair criticism of your body. Are they trying to raise a happy child, or one that meets some sort of size requirement? If you are feeling confrontational, you might tell them that you do not appreciate the way they are treating you—that might be enough to get them to back off. If a therapist is not an option, talk to your friends and try to build yourself a support system outside of your home. Whatever you do, stay healthy and stick to your positive self-image. You are doing great!

So last year a couple weeks after coming back from Christmas break, a boy in my class committed suicide. He seemed like a happy guy and we have a really small high school class, so most of us (including me) had known him since elementary school. It really hit the whole community hard—everyone knew him and he was the star athlete on two teams. Fast-forward to the last couple days. One of the teachers at my school who is really close to the family of the deceased classmate wants to plant a tree in the senior garden in honor of the guy and she's been asking the senior class to give donations to buy this gigantic tree. Everyone seems to be totally on board with it . . . except me. Something just feels off, but I'm not really sure what or if I'm just being too unforgiving. I mean (not getting into the gruesome details) he took his own life intentionally, and not only that, but his older brother was the one who found him (he could easily have been found by the brother still in elementary school). The whole thing was weird and completely unexpected and it hurt so many people so much and his best friends were left wondering if they did something wrong, no one knows why he did it. It would be different if he had died in a car crash or something out of his control, but the fact that it was intentional. I just feel uncomfortable about contributing money to a tree to memorialize him, but everyone else in my senior class is really into it, and when the teacher asks each of us if we've given money yet, I feel like a traitor saying "not yet." At our ring ceremony, the administration privately asked the class president not to mention the boy in her speech, and she and the rest of my class acted outraged, but I could see their point in not making him seem hero-like and elevated. He was a really nice guy, but the circumstances of his death . . . well, I think there's a line between remembering and honoring, memorializing. Should I forgive and forget, or am I a bit justified in my feelings? I don't feel like I can talk about it to my classmates about it now because I tried a bit already and they acted like I didn't care about him.

You are right that suicide is an intentional decision, but does that make it any less of a tragic occurrence? Suicide is not something that people do to prove a point or because they want to hurt others—it’s something that happens because they feel that the pain of being alive is simply too much for them to bear and because they can’t find any other way to cope. Suicide is oftentimes the result of severe depression, which, touching on your car-crash point, is not something a person can necessarily control. You might try to think of the tree as something that memorializes your classmate’s life, regardless of the mechanics of his death. No matter how it happened, he’s dead, and that’s sad for everyone who is still alive. If planting a tree is your school's way of coping with that sadness, I don’t see a problem with it. However, I certainly do see why you’d feel weird for donating money to a cause you don’t entirely agree with. I think you should refrain from donating if you don’t want to, but as this is a very sensitive subject, you have to be prepared for people to perceive your disagreement in a potentially negative light. Whether you want to deal with those perceptions is up to you—it sounds like you’re on the fence about it. How about this: donate to the tree cause, then donate an equal amount to suicide prevention organization such as Save.org. This way you’ll also play a role in helping people before things get to the memorial tree phase.

So I'm not exactly sure how to word this question correctly. If I were to say, "Something happened to me a few times when I was five" it would imply that I was entirely the victim in the situation, which isn't true. I guess the best way to word my story would be like this: When I was five, I let my brother do something to me a few times that I knew was wrong at the time, but I just didn't care enough to let him stop. I didn't like it or anything, I just really wasn't bothered enough to make a fuss about it. I didn't really know exactly what was wrong about it, but I knew better than to tell my parents. If you haven't started guessing yet, basically he molested me over the span of about six months. He was 13 (I think) at the time and I'm almost positive that if I asked him to stop he would have. He's always been incredibly nice to me (especially considering he's an older brother) and I don't think he even remembers this. Sometimes I even wonder if I'm somehow just completely making the whole thing up in my head, even though I know that's not true. I know that you're probably going to think I'm biased when I say this, but there's absolutely no way in the world that he would ever even think about doing something like this again. I guess my question is why didn't this bother me at all when I was five, even though I'm pretty sure I knew that something wasn't right about it? Obviously later on I realized how incredibly revoltingly gross and screwed up the whole thing was, but shouldn't I have at least cared? Does this make me one of those creepy people or something? I mean, isn't this sort of thing supposed to utterly scar someone for life? If someone did this to me now I would completely freak, but back then it just didn't seem like that big of a deal.

What you describe is a very common reaction among victims of sexual abuse. It's not weird that you didn't feel like it was a big deal at the time. According to Dr. Lynn Daughtery, "Many times victims of child sexual abuse worry about the emotions they feel. Sometimes they are frightened by them or ashamed of them. It is normal for victims to have many, many emotions. Some of these are pleasant, some unpleasant, some even frightening to think about or to feel. All of these emotions are normal reactions to being a victim of child sexual abuse." It's also normal to think that you could have done something to stop the abuse. Dr. Daughtery says, "[the victim of abuse] may believe...feel guilty because he or she did not try hard enough to stop the abuse." But the truth is, you are in no way to blame. You may not want to be the victim here, but you are. And while you are right that this kind of episode might scar some people for life, it doesn’t have to, and that doesn't mean it's any less creepy or wrong. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse deal with what happened and carry on with your lives. But I’m also wondering how the molestation affected your relationship with your brother. How is your relationship now? To be honest, I would be very surprised if he legitimately doesn’t remember molesting you over a six-month span, so I imagine that he has some pretty complicated emotions about it. I think it would be a very good idea to speak to a therapist about it, tell your parents what happened, and even eventually talk to your brother, if you feel that would bring closure. (I would talk to a therapist first, though. You can search for one in your area on this website.) There are many books out there for survivors of childhood sexual abuse; Outgrowing the Pain is a good one to start with. Sadly, sexual molestation is a very common occurrence, and your reaction to it is entirely normal.

Hey Chris, I sorta have a problem. Recently, I got my first boyfriend. Ever. And I also got my first kiss. When I kissed him, I didn't feel any butterflies or whatever you're suppose to feel when you kiss someone. I felt... nothing. We've kissed since then, and I've only felt a tiny bit of butterflies once. I really, really like him, and not just as a friend. I don't know whether or not it's because this is my first time really kissing, or if it's because he's not the right guy. I've asked a few of friends—and they've all told me different things. One says that it's because I'm not kissing him right, the other says because I'm not kissing the right guy, and still another told me it takes time to start really feeling anything. I'm just not sure what to do, please help!

Perhaps the most likely culprit is your physical attraction—or lack thereof—for this fellow. You say you really, really like him, but does he have a certain magnetism that you can’t resist? Just because he’s your first boyfriend and it’s your first kiss doesn’t mean the two of you will have the kind of chemistry that knocks your socks off. If you are perpetually underwhelmed by the smooching, maybe he isn’t the right guy for you. Like it or not, physical attraction is the cornerstone on which romantic relationships are built.

Lately all of the questions in your blog have been really depressing. Since you go through all of those emails every day, what would you say are some simple things a Sparkler should know about staying a happier person? What is your favorite thing that makes you happy? (I know this is a bit of an odd question, but hopefully it'll bring some smiles to people who really need it right now. :) )

I hear you. Today alone we’ve covered suicide, anger, molestation, and the very upsetting issue of kissing with no butterflies. I try not to think of these topics as depressing or bad because they’re just part of life and we all have to deal with them at one time or another. It’s stuff that happens, and what matters is how we react to it. As for things that make me happy, a good cheeseburger or a day of skateboarding or a really loud guitar amp is oftentimes enough. But more often than not, the thing that makes me happy is seeing people do the things they want to do and actively support things they believe in. Obviously that is a very generic and open-ended statement, but it makes me happy when people put their own priorities first instead of caring about how they will be perceived by others. There's a lot of pressure to fit in and make choices that meet up with societal norms, and it brings warmth to my heart when I see people disregarding those conventions because they don't believe in them. So I guess the most important thing Sparklers should know about happiness is that while we all have to compromise from time to time, fulfilling your own desires should always remain the goal. And, oh yeah, try to have a little fun, too!

Feeling fat or like a freak on Friday the 13th? Funnel your questions to chris@sparknotes.com.

Related Post: Cutting, Swimming, and Getting Over Stage Fright

Topics: Advice, Beauty
Tags: parents, body image, relationships, kissing, depression, suicide, weight, abuse, happiness

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