The first group I belonged to, my family, taught me how unsafe they were and I’ve performed poorly in groups ever since, unless I’m leading them. Even then, I stifle so much fear. This has been true my whole life. As long ago as grade school, I preferred independent study and the value of group work entirely escaped me. I couldn’t sidestep the feeling that I was outside the group, different in ways no one would understand, and I isolated myself, sure that others would do that if I didn’t do it first. This sort of thing can be self-fulfilling, obviously, even if it’s true that one is different in some indefensible way.
When I think about groups, I think about book groups, study groups, committees at work—work itself has and is its’ own group. Churches and schools—classes—all those places where people gather and you find yourself with the same congregation of people time after time. I’ve watched other people make connections in all those situations. People choose friends, go out for drinks, meet for lunch, get together and socialize outside the group—and that’s what I look at and notice and don’t do. I think I don’t know how, that I’ve never known how, that it’s somehow too risky.
I ask myself, has there ever been an exception?
When I participated in group therapy for one year five years ago, I learned that many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse dissociate, that many even have alternate identities and they never speak of it in group. My mindfulness was challenged when my younger alters leaped into my heart space to greet the child-Parts of another woman when she breezed through the entrance on my very first day there. Nothing like that had ever happened, that my Parts would dance for joy to find another person’s Parts in the room: my un-integrated Parts jumped out to befriend the Parts of another woman in the group. My Parts went ahead and made friends without me and I just tagged along. To me that was more confirmation of how different I was from others at that time, that I couldn’t reach out and connect on my own.
I still pondered this and I wondered was I always alone before? when my granddaughter brought me a stack of books from one of the children’s shelves in my study last week. I noticed The Little Prince, probably too old for a three-year-old, but I opened it anyway and found a long handwritten inscription inside.
It was dated August, 1966, addressed “To my very own Catherine,” and signed, “Love, Bon”. My friend Bonnie wrote of the “millions” of enlightening, revealing, hilarious, long talks we shared and how much she gained from our friendship. She promised, as my baby son Adam’s godparent, that she’d be honored to help him grow up to be the kind of person he’d be proud to be if, God forbid, something should happen to me; and as I read her nearly fifty-year-old words written in the front of The Little Prince, it began to come back to me, all that I’d forgotten, and how close Bonnie and I were during the year I lived in Salt Lake City. Her note is raw and honest and beautiful.
Bonnie and I worked together. We were two ingénues, greenhorns selling books door-to-door in Utah to housewives in the sixties. We went out for drinks after work. We played and did family things with baby Adam on weekends. Mostly, I remember so much drinking at the age of nineteen and twenty—I’m sure I abandoned all inhibitions when Bonnie and I talked and philosophized and shared all our secrets.
My child Parts can obviously make friends, and how interesting is it that Bonnie gifted me The Little Prince? Because those child aspects of me are perfectly tuned in to essential matters of friendship, like “What is her smile like” and “What games does she love” and “Does she collect butterflies,” to borrow from Antoine de St. Exupery. And my child Parts have always regarded the fox with equal measures of fear and fearlessness, for “one runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets oneself be tamed…” to quote the Little Prince. I am left to wonder how many Parts came out without my knowledge and told Bonnie our story, what secrets I actually shared with her. Our drinking times were very playful, just as my Parts were when they chose to make friends without me.
I consider the wall of inhibitions I live behind, and that alcohol and dissociative disorder have breached it, but I have not. Not yet. What would happen if I allowed my self out a little at a time in a group I belong to? Would it be as humiliating as I fear? Or would there be other exceptions?
After finding her long-ago note in The Little Prince, I looked up Bonnie online and I found her obituary, that she had died suddenly at home in 2007. In the time after our friendship she had married, had two sons, divorced and then lost her ex-husband again when he died, and gone back to school for advanced degrees. She became a social worker, an instructor at the University of Utah, director of a battered women’s shelter and a hospice worker, among other healing professional work.
The Little Prince said, you will be content that you have known me.
She named one of her sons Adam.