No Monsters, No Saints: Abusers Can Be Kind, the Abused Can Be Abusive

a mural of a lawyer being eaten by a shark being eaten by a mosasaur being eaten by a giant squid being eaten by a large pirranha being eaten by a demon
Image by Eden, Janine and Jim / CC BY

I spent a couple of years seriously studying medical terminology, preparing to work as a medical transcriptionist. Anatomy & Physiology. Pharmacology. A multi-semester course on Disease Processes.

I noticed quickly that some of the students were troubled about what we were learning about the myriad ways that the human body can break down. And others? Not so much.

I asked my Diseases Processes instructor (a physician’s assistant) about clinical detachment one morning as we waited for our room to free up from the previous class.

“I’ve always found that the quickest way to get there is to imagine these rare diseases as existing on a kind of island,” she said.

“Like the patients have been quarantined?” I asked.

“No, not like that,” she said. “Like there’s a Nation of Achalasia or Astrocytoma. And that people who live there just get them. People you don’t know and will never know.”

“Instead of thinking about them as something that could happen spontaneously to the people in my life,” I said.

“Exactly.”

“Or even me,” I said.

“Yeah, you never do that,” she said.

“It sounds like an interesting thought experiment,” I said. “But you work with patients. How does that work?”

“It doesn’t when you get into direct patient care. That’s a different balancing act. Compassion with detachment,” she said.

“How do you manage that?” I asked.

“I don’t sometimes,” she said, as our classroom began to empty. “Why do you think I’m teaching?”

No Monsters, No Saints

Over the years, I’ve noticed that people play these mental games a lot, as a way of making meaning of the world — or at least making things a little more bearable.

We mentally put people who have been through exceptional circumstances onto their own little islands, reducing them to that single characteristic.

  • Consent violators live in their own little bubble, clearly identifiable drooling monsters that jump out from behind the bushes with a long beard like the bum from Aqualung.
  • Abusers are relegated to their own land, where all they do is perpetrate violence and pain on others.
  • The abused have their own kind of home, a saintly island, where they speak of their experiences and overcoming them in a way that sheds light and inspires others.

And yet… this isn’t the way any of it works. In fact:

  • Consent violators can look entirely normal and be people that do many other good things.
  • Abusers don’t necessarily abuse every person they have a relationship with.
  • The abused can also go on to abuse others.

I’ve found that this last point is especially uncomfortable. A lot of people seem to think but being a victim and being a victimizer are mutually exclusive. If only it were that simple.

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Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory

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