When bad stuff happens to other people, most of us tend to react in a reasonably similar way. We tut and gasp and shake our heads and say “oh no, that’s awful”. We mull over whatever details of the bad stuff that we’re privy to. We acknowledge what a horrible experience it must have been and use words that suggest we’re trying to imagine what it must’ve felt like. And in the deepest, darkest recesses of our minds, we recall that wonderful line from Do They Know It’s Christmas? – “tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you”.
And why wouldn’t we? Even while we’re contemplating it, most of the time we really only give bad stuff a cursory thought, without dwelling on the detail. Neither do we really consider the true impact of bad stuff on those involved, not in any real depth anyway. That’s not us being intentionally malicious, it’s just the human condition – the obvious response to the kind of bad stuff that no right-minded person would ever voluntarily submit themself to.
When bad stuff happens to someone else, we usually imply some degree of understanding of how awful it must’ve been, but we don’t actually want to think about it too much because the fact that it’s happened to someone we know makes the possibility of it also happening to us far too real. By thinking about it, we’re forced to acknowledge that possibility and it’s very confronting. So when bad stuff happens to someone else we give it a superficial nod, then a very wide berth. We do whatever we can to think about something else. Anything else. Just not the bad stuff.
So when bad stuff happens to us, it feels so much worse than we ever could’ve imagined – probably because we so actively avoided imagining how it would feel when it wasn’t happening to us. But when the shoe’s suddenly on the other foot, most of us don’t have the first clue what’s about to happen. I experienced some bad stuff quite recently and my own psychological response, the emotional roller-coaster of the days and weeks after the bad stuff, was totally unexpected. It’s a complex and unpredictable process that I imagine is unique to everyone who experiences bad stuff.
In my case, the bad stuff involved someone coming into our home when we weren’t there. They spent an unknown period of time inside, making a whole lot of mess in the process, before leaving and taking a whole bunch of our stuff with them. They didn’t use a key to get in and they were not known to us. I certainly don’t recall sending an open invitation for anyone who was up for it to come into my house and take whatever caught their eye, so to say they were both uninvited and unwelcome would be a massive understatement.
Mercifully, when bad stuff happens to someone else most of us can do that thing where we say “thank God that’s never happened to me”, before reaching out to touch the nearest wood (or a wood-like or wood-effect laminate surface, in the absence of actual wood). Until very recently, I too was a member of the Never-Been-Broken-Into Club. Virtually everyone in the world has automatic membership of the NBBI, whether they know it or not. It’s one of only a handful of clubs where no member ever wants to rescind their membership and where those who do never do so by choice. Sadly for me, it seems my username and password for the Never-Been-Broken-Into Club’s website have been deactivated, I’ve handed back my club member’s keyring and the diamond-encrusted stickpin from Bruce & Walsh Jewellers has been relegated to that funny drawer that’s full of other old stickpins, membership badges, watches, jewellery and various other mementos that no longer serve any purpose. What an exceedingly bitter pill it’s been to swallow.
But all jesting aside – seriously, what an exceedingly bitter pill it’s been to swallow. Seriously. What a horrible, awful thing this bad stuff is. There’s a kind of post-traumatic stress that kicks in after bad stuff. It’s a permanent knot that forms at the centre of your gut. It’s a sense of disbelief, of invasion, of utter violation, and it permeates everything. There’s fear, anxiety, sadness and anger in equal measure. From time to time I’ve harboured a totally irrational desire to form a lynch mob, track down the perpetrator of our bad stuff and mete out some vigilante-style justice; I’ve imagined what I’d do if I had an hour in a sound-proofed room with our ‘perp’ and a selection of tools and implements at my disposal. As something of a pacifist, having such vivid, violent imaginings is pretty freaky.
There are random moments of utter frustration. There are feelings of absolute rage that build up unexpectedly and with astonishing speed, before erupting in the form of expletive-ridden rants – usually when there’s no one around to hear them – as a means of venting the anger and outrage. Despite never having met our ‘perp’ and with no idea what they look like, I’ve still imagined myself coming face-to-face with them in the rooms they ransacked, by the shelves they stole from, rifling through drawers. And despite the fact that they’re not in the room with me at the time, on more than one occasion I’ve shouted a tirade of abuse at them as if they were. “How dare you break into my home, invade my space, take my stuff and destroy my sense of security!”, I’ve fumed at our unseen felon. “I worked hard to pay for that stuff! It was for me to enjoy, it was for anyone of my choosing to enjoy with me – it wasn’t for you! How dare you decide you had the right to come in here, go through our things, break stuff and take whatever you wanted away from us. How fucking dare you!“.
If anyone was actually unfortunate enough to witness one of my little outbursts, I daresay it’d look as weird as it sounds; probably not dissimilar to watching a budding actor delivering a monologue for his NIDA audition, that’s kinda how it feels – all confrontational and finger-pointing, red-faced rage, arms flailing about and all without the party to whom the abuse is directed even being in the room. With your own reality as muse, who needs method acting?
After experiencing this kind of bad stuff, suddenly everyone and everything looks extremely suspicious. The truck turning around outside the house, the old man putt-putting down the street in his beaten-up old Pulsar, the kid on the bike, the guys dropping off their workmate across the road, the old lady walking her dog. There was much twitching of curtains and flicking of the venetians; I became intimately familiar with the perfect vantage points for covert surveillance of the outside world from any given window; and I kept the phone to hand at all times, should the need arise to surreptitiously photograph anything I deemed to be even slightly irregular.
And all the while this bizarre behaviour is going on – and believe me, you know it’s bizarre when it’s happening – you make out like you’re OK with the whole thing. “It is what it is”, “can’t do anything to change it now”, “we should be grateful, it could’ve been so much worse”. Maybe we’re just putting on a brave face for anyone else who was impacted by the bad stuff? Or maybe we’re trying to convince anyone who wasn’t involved that all’s well? Perhaps we’re just trying to convince ourselves.
But eventually you do have to move on. Despite the bravado, the temporary inability to function normally, the momentary lapses of reason and the outbursts of anger, despite the insecurity and the feelings of helplessness, anxiety and mistrust, sooner or later you have to get to the point where you realise that the bad stuff was just something that happened. No, it wasn’t nice. No, you didn’t invite it. Yes, it might be hard to get beyond it. But you have to take the position that, for better or for worse, it really was just something that happened, like anything else that can happen over the course of our lives. For the sake of your own sanity, that’s really the only way you can think about it. Of course you learn lessons, you make changes to avoid the same bad stuff happening again and, as far as possible, you put things back to how they were. Bad stuff needs to be acknowledged and accepted for what it was before you can start moving away from it and leaving it in the past.
I haven’t managed to do it yet.
I wonder how long it’s gonna take…