Photo Credit: “The 4 Differences Between Introversion and Social Anxiety by Ellen Hendriksen, Quiet Revolution, https://www.quietrev.com/the-4-differences-between-introversion-and-social-anxiety/
Every few years, Lexus swoops back into my sedate world. (I’ve changed her name, age, physical description, and life story to protect her privacy.) At six feet tall, with eyes the color of acid-washed jeans, she’s noticeable even without her booming voice and constant jitteriness. She’s in her 20s, but she’s used hard drugs for over a decade and they’ve aged her: her face is gaunt, silver does battle with straw gold in her hair, and the skin on her hands looks glued to her bones.
She jokes that she got her name because she was conceived in the back seat of a Lexus, but I doubt her 14-year-old mother had ever seen the inside of a luxury car. She was first placed in foster care as a baby and spent her childhood going back and forth between different foster parents and her biological mother, who tried repeatedly to get clean and failed. This history of precarious attachments turned her into a youth who tried all the time to charm people into loving and not leaving her. But they kept leaving her. And eventually, she learned to leave them, disappearing for months and brushing off their worries with a brash smile when she returned. When people proved unreliable as love objects, she stumbled into substance abuse. Without someone trustworthy to love her, she could at least recreate the chemical experience of being loved. Yet even the drugs left her, in a way: she’d come down from her high and do desperate things to get more drugs and recreate that sensation of the love she’d not so much lost as never had.
Every time Lexus reappears, I offer to connect her with social services that could help her, particularly those with a harm-reduction philosophy, where she can get assistance first and then contemplate quitting once she’s stably housed. Every time, she turns me down with a smile. “Some time, Mar, some time when I’m ready. But I’m not ready yet.”
Whenever she leaves, I fear she’ll die before she’s ready. I worry about her overdosing, or getting beaten up so badly she won’t recover (and she’s survived many an assault). Every time she says, “Some time when I’m ready,” I’m struck by my powerlessness to rescue her. Here I am with my hand stretched out to take hers and she pulls hers back, smiling, shaking her head.
Sometimes I feel angry that she refuses help. How can she possibly enjoy her relationships with fragile people who only know how to lash out? How can she choose such a tightrope existence–couch-surfing, camping under overpasses, sleeping in cars–over stable housing, work, and community? But then I feel ashamed. After suffering multiple head injuries, she struggles to concentrate, to understand instructions, to read. What types of job opportunities does that leave her? And with a history of misdemeanors and a felony or two, who will hire her?
Neurochemically speaking, her default setting has become “Adrenalize,” so her brain may not distinguish between excitement and terror. That on-the-edge feeling that goes with her teeter-totter circumstances may energize rather than agitate her. Then there’s the solidarity that comes from belonging to a marginalized, neglected community that so many straight-and-narrow people write off as “bums,” “druggies,” “wastes of space,” etc. As dysfunctional as her street-family structure may seem to those on the outside, she speaks about them with affection and loyalty. This family she’s chosen doesn’t condemn her; they offer mutual aid, understanding, and protection in the coldest of situations.
Knowing a person like Lexus has taught me a fierce and wrenching compassion. She’s taught me that sometimes I can’t change all the circumstances I yearn to. She’s taught me that I can’t save people when they don’t want to be saved (and they might take exception to my idea of “saving”: while Lexus sure doesn’t relish sleeping on the street, she also shies away from assistance from people and organizations she expects to look down on her and deprive her of her freedom). I’ve learned that sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between empathy and arrogance, between caring about someone and assuming you know what’s best for them. I’ve learned that love remains even if you don’t approve of the way someone’s living their life, and that you can love someone and still protect yourself. (When she’s around, I hide my wallet–protecting us both.)
As far as writing goes, Lexus has taught me to respect my characters, all of them, regardless of whether or not I approve of their value system and their actions. I’ve learned to let the characters speak as their true selves, not as mouthpieces for me and my morals. I’ve also learned to love characters who behave in ways I consider sad, problematic, or even despicable. And I’ve learned to take care with the degree to which a person I know in real life influences the way I describe a character.
Writers have the power to speak on behalf of those whose voices aren’t heard in their societies. Writers also have the opportunity to exploit those vulnerable voices. If they’re not careful and conscientious, they can end up usurping another’s voice, stealing another’s story, instead of fostering awareness among readers who haven’t endured such experiences. It’s tempting to make use of someone else’s story to fill in the expertise blanks, so to speak. If I’ve never flown a plane, fought in a war, cleaned an office building at midnight, or come out of a coma, I can either read about or talk with someone who has and can feel more comfortable putting myself into the head, and the life, of a character who’s done whatever it is I haven’t. We all do this to some extent. It’s part of our natural tendency to connect with others, to empathize, and to share. However, when you’re a storyteller, it’s something you must do responsibly so to avoid degrading further people who’ve already been damaged and exploited.
I’ve always admired William Shakespeare for both his ability to create characters from all walks of life–from an insecure prince to an inebriated guard at the city gate–and to love them all, even if they’re unpleasant, gross, selfish, vain, weighted down by life, fragile and about to break, ignorant, strutting, misogynistic, clueless… I’m sure he had his own 16th-century version of Lexus, and he had the largeness of heart both to present her as she was and to love her, to care about what happened to her, with both unflinching compassion and truth that doesn’t avert its gaze.