The Snapping Turtle Syndrome: The Toxic People in Our Lives A friend of mine said to me that he was afraid of the dark. I told him that I was sure the feeling was mutual. - ATD
From the time we are all tiny, by anyone's standards, we are told that we should obey the Golden Rule, that we are to treat others as we expect to be treated. But recently I have been thinking: What if I hate myself and want to die? How would I treat others in that event? The knee-jerk response is that we would be cruel to others or try to physically harm them. That makes sense. But, unfortunately, people do not always make sense. And the way someone would treat another with that self-world can be remarkably different, seemingly quite the opposite, yet with the same result.
The extreme of these people are stalkers. But that's too easy. Like a cancer, people often possess the subtlety of the briefest whiff of perfume left upon a pillow. You may have found yourself saying about a person “He is an effort to be around”, or maybe, “She literally soaks the life out of me whenever she is in my life”. This is not a poetic thing we say. There is, after all, such a thing as a psychic vampire. And before you go thinking this is some stupid, Goth, black-lipsticked fantasy film thing, it is a name for this type of person. The analogy is too apt to be merely dismissed.
Toxic people such as described above will often deeply care - as they see it - for another, often quite sincerely. Are you aware of the habits of the alligator snapping turtle? The alligator snapping turtle is a craggy looking thing, sitting at the bottom of a pond or lake. For all intents and purposes it looks like an outcropping of rock. Here, the creature opens its mouth, revealing a small tongue that looks just like a worm struggling in the current. A fish sees this and, thinking it sees what it wants, what it needs the most, will enter the mouth to catch the worm...only to have those powerful jaws snap shut, killing the fish. This, then, is what toxic people do to their prey. And that's what we are to them, make no mistake. We are prey. Sometimes it is intentional, but more often it is just what the poison spirit of the person does. That's not an excuse. It's just the way it is.
In my professional career I have witnessed myriads of these people, but my primary experience is from my personal life. Like a light bulb, toxic people need a socket to light themselves. I know there is a world of bad metaphors that can come from that. So before we go to the gutter, let me say this metaphor is present in much of spiritual thought as well, though not, perhaps, as modernly expressed as a light bulb. In other words, there are people who are magnets for toxic people. I have often joked that my “little black book” was the DSM-IV, which is the diagnostic manual for mental disorders. It wasn’t far from the truth. Toxic people are masters of sensing vulnerabilities. It is truly an intuitive marvel. For instance, in the field of addiction, there are people who are in relationships with addicts who will sabotage a person’s chemical dependency recovery, not necessarily intentionally, so that they can have more control over the addict again. This is not mere “enabling”, which is the popular psychobabble for that. Nor is it the simple codependent, which is the much over-used catch phrase of the 20th century. Codependents are merely victims, not predators. These people want you the way you were, so they can “help” you, so they can feed their need to – and this is key – make you pay for whatever injustice or atrocity happened to them in their own past. Again, this is most often entirely subconscious on their part.
I am not at all concerned what the diagnostic classification of toxic people may be. I am only concerned about them experientially. People such as these will show up in your life when you are finally succeeding. They will show up when you are at your lowest – as if by some magical intuition – and offer the highest of help. You will then be yanked into their familiar pattern…you know, the pattern that drove you to the very convenience store on the brink of insanity the last time.
And because this is a person you are dealing with, you can’t just call the exterminator. But we must understand one major component of all of this: toxic individuals do not enter the lives of the spiritually fit. Let me say that again, because I find that mildly important: The toxic person does not enter the life of the spiritually fit person. So, therefore, that is how one rids one’s self of such a person.
The person in your life must go. NOW. No “weaning” them off. There is no “patch” for this situation. I have no sympathy for smokers whatsoever. You cut it off cold turkey or quit bitching and whining. Why don’t they give alcoholics “beer patches” in rehab? They give every other idiot a nicotine patch in rehab centers. Which is more vital: the risk of the deadly possibility of withdrawal or the mere inconvenience of not being able to stick a phallic symbol in your mouth, like the pacifier you had when you were 2? And, as there is no alcohol “patch”, nicotine patches should be completely abolished. Give it up now, work on it yourself and keep your mouth shut.
Beginning with cutting all ties with this person immediately and irrevocably, you must then embark on a path of spiritual fitness. And, I would argue, one cannot have spiritual fitness without physical and mental fitness. By that I do not mean becoming buff or seeing a therapist. What I am saying is that it requires a commitment to develop what I call “soul currency”, meaning something you actually have to offer others and the world that is both credible and enduring. This can begin by simply doing this to feel better and gain more energy. And, yes, the issues of diet, exercise and all that happy horse crap are essential. If you do not provide the signals the psycho-plane can’t land. Self-sufficiency is the order of the day, or, as I prefer to call it: Self-fullness as opposed to selfishness.
The difficulty in this is that we are in a nation of selfish people. Yet, ironically, they all want to look the same, dress the same and act the same. Right now, at this very point in history, we are in a toxic society. There is no respect, there is no civility and there is no honor. There is absolutely no pride in work. And you have to “Press 1 for Sane”.
We are all embarking on a moment in history when things are going to become very difficult indeed. This will not get better. The importance of “circling the wagons” and creating the very artwork of our souls has never been more urgent. Notice that I gave no specific remedies here. This is because every person’s idea of spiritual fitness and such belongs to them. We are born by ourselves and will die by ourselves. We – our own individual bodies and souls - are the first and only family we will ever have. It falls upon every one of us to love ourselves, make it whole and then share that with others, not in reverse.
A line from the movie “Arthur”, starring Dudley Moore and Sir John Geilgud has haunted me all my life. As Geilgud’s character was dying, he told Moore’s character, “You can do anything with your life that you want to.” This was no greeting card whimsy. It is an absolute truth. And a frightening one.
As I see it, there are two kinds of hell in this world: No options or too many. It is, then, our life’s work to find the balance in ourselves and in our choices. And it’s not an easy thing. It requires a delicate intuition. It is like looking at the stars on a clear night: sometimes there is a star that you cannot see when looking at it straight on. But if you relax and don’t look directly at it, then you can actually see it. We fool ourselves in a cruel way when we believe we can control our lives and start this engine with our very will.
When all we really need to do is master the art of awareness; being open to the very opportunities and people that God sends us, why do we waste our soul energy on the poison in our lives when there are stars waiting to be seen?
Andrew T.Durham is a graduate of State University at Albany, with a degree in Psychology/Philosophy. In the late 80's to mid 90's he was instrumental in creating ground-breaking outreach/prevention programs, as well as being a highly successful public speaker. A former acupuncturist and clinician (primarily to inner city adolescents), he has also been a consultant to the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health and several non-profit organizations. He is an accomplished musician - proficient in 7 instruments - ,actor and author of 10 plays, 5 of which have been produced. He is currently a consultant for small non-profit agencies and lives in Rochester, NY