on heating bad vibes by gaslight

I’ve got a much older friend who told me over the phone this weekend, as we were making plans for something later that day, about how COVID cases in Florida are out of control.

            “Alex, the hospitals are flooded. Ab-so-lutely FLOODED. It’s horrible. The deaths will be incalculable. And the economy…?”

            And then he tells me that he’s gonna die from it eventually. That the coronavirus is gonna kill him. Swiftly. And as he goes on to tell me (in all seriousness) that he plans to contract the virus and die of it, he’s got this shrugging tone of, Meh, it’s fine, though. Nobody cares.

Then he allows an awkward pause to endure and says, “Anyway. How are you?”

            And the implication of that shrugging tone, the ostensible indifference about his own mortality, is that he’s disposable, that the subject of his death is something to shrug about. And the implication of that sentiment is, “The reason my death doesn’t matter, the reason I’m shrugging about it, is because the people in my life have made clear to me that I’m disposable.”

And that’s not just an implication.

It’s an accusation.

Because when you call a friend and say, The people in my life don’t show me that they care about me, what you’re basically doing is telling your friend that he sucks. Because he, of course, is one of those people.

            I think it’s a blend of age and pride. You’re 70, you’re getting upset about the same kindsa simple human things that used to upset you when you were twelve, but you can’t just stomp your feet and say that you’re upset. Because that’s what children do.

The solution, then, is to come up with ways of suggesting that you want attention without actually broadcasting it.  

            But when all you do is suggest that you have those feelings rather than addressing them, when you keep them bottled up in your chest, it makes them rise in temperature to roughly 97.8 degrees. Now you’re not just sad, you’re angry that nobody is picking up on your sadness. Then, when the feelings finally come out (and they always do find their way out), the thing that started as sadness will have evolved into anger. And now you’re being snarky and mean. Which only works to push people farther away than you already feel they are.

            The resolution, I know, is to just give this friend more attention. Check in on him without pointing out that he obviously wants me to check in on him. Because the problem can’t be addressed head-on. I can’t just say to him, “You’re constantly implying that I and everyone else in your life is neglecting you, that we’re all self-absorbed pieces of shit, so do you want attention? Do you want me to call you twice a day?” Because then he’s gonna gaslight me. He’s gonna part his lips in a trademark way while I’m explaining what he’s up to, he’s gonna squint at me like antennae are sprouting from my head, and then, leaving me to marinate in a few seconds of silence after I’ve finished my explanation, he’s gonna widen his eyes and tell me that maybe I should talk to somebody. Because I’m crazy. He’s gonna tell me that I’m projecting all of this stuff onto his innocent conversation…

“And maybe,” he’ll tell me with a shrug, “the reason you’re projecting this ‘neglect’ business onto what I’m saying is because you feel, in your subconscious, that I am neglected…”

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