Toxicity & Empathy


I loved and I loved. And I loved and I loved. And I loved, and I loved, til I ran out of love.” — “Pictures,” by Ewert and the Two Dragons

I moved to my current city just over two years ago. Shortly after I moved into the city, I moved into a communal house — or more aptly, a house that was trying to be a new communal space.

Long story short, it was a toxic house.

Long story short, the problem with living in a toxic place is that you become a little (or a lot) toxic too.

Long story short, the space was far from the radical space I think, at various points, we all wanted it to be. It was far from being a safe(r) space and even further from being a brave space. It was far from being a place where conversations could happen honestly or people could be comfortable expressing their true selves — in all of their beauty and wisdom and fierceness, in any of their vulnerability.

I entered the space newly learning how to work, and live, with my own vulnerability, and perhaps not in the ideal headspace to be the best housemate I could be, because of the ways in which I was still learning to heal and care for and about myself — but if I should have found another living situation because of this, this begs the question then of who “should” be allowed in these types of spaces — spaces traditionally, though not exclusively, formed and largely occupied by people who are already occupying society’s margins in one way or another. I also entered the space with idealism about community and mutual aid and countercultures. I entered the space excited to learn about my housemates, and to support them, and to feel supported. To take on projects as a house, to learn new skills.

When I first brought up the house feeling toxic, I felt crazy because no one else seemed to believe me — or at least people weren’t seeing the same things I was seeing as problems. When I again brought up the house feeling toxic, I was ridiculed in a passive-aggressive way by one of the main people in the space who I felt was acting toxic. And, when I brought this up as a way that the house felt unsafe to me, no one else who’d witnessed the exchange remembered it (which is, unfortunately, typical of either being in a position of power or privilege within a space: you have the opportunity to forget (micro)aggressions). The house became more toxic from that point on, and I became a target (if I wasn’t already one), and I could go into the gory details, and perhaps one day I will, but not today.

When I became toxic, in response to my housemates’ toxicity toward me, I felt it. The low-grade depression I was already dealing with became crushing. I dreaded speaking up at our weekly house meetings about things that were unjust — or simply needed to be done based on the logistics of living in a house and being adults and living in community — because I knew that, somehow, they’d be turned around on me or fully ignored by most of my housemates, to the point that my ally in the house would repeat what I said, and people would respond to him as though it was his idea*. In honestly though, I dreaded speaking up at all, because time and again, my words were used against me — even ones I thought were said in confidence, even ones I thought were innocuous.

I coped in the ways I knew how: I pushed my body hard physically, because I didn’t give a shit about destroying my body, and because being active was the only way I was keeping my anxiety in control. I struggled to do things I enjoyed because I began to believe everyone in those other activities would see what my house claimed — that I was a terrible person — and I started turning away from people I knew cared, including co-workers and the person who organized one of my weekly volunteer activities. My house, and my history, had taught me I didn’t deserve care, not really. That I was disposable. I spent a decent portion of most days crying, or struggling not to cry.

I resurrected old walls, because the only way to keep myself alive was to become incredibly self-protective, and insular.I didn’t trust anyone’s motivations. I skirted around people’s concerned questions, because I couldn’t trust them to care, or myself not to cry.

Six months of my memory, from that time period, are patchy because of how depressed I was, because of how hard I had to work to stay present.

One day, in the middle of that whole mess, I decided that I was going to meet toxicity with love, because being toxic was doing me no good. I remember saying to someone, “You know that saying, ‘You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?’ I might not catch any flies, but I can’t keep being vinegar. It’s killing me.” This wasn’t an exaggeration.

And simply making that decision was enough to ease some of the weight of depression — though I understand why this isn’t the right option for everyone. For me, I felt like I had some semblance of control over my life again, for the first time in months. The panic and anxiety I was dealing with lessened. I stopped crying every day. I began to be able to focus outwardly again, to re-engage with the world.

Because I make sense of the world by learning more — a lovely friend recently called me a compulsive learner — I read a book about the collective process gone awry, and our house could have been a case study. I read so many articles and books about psychopathy and empathy and sociopathy and apathy and personality types and abusive relationships and gaslighting and tried to make sense of what was happening, what had happened. I wasn’t sure where I’d find myself on any of those scales, because my housemates had so fucked with my mind. But, I wanted to believe, with enough information, with enough examples, that the hurt I felt, and the hurt I caused, would somehow be nullified. And that if I simply learned enough about all of these things, I could figure out exactly where things went wrong so that I’m never caught in that again — as the person being targeted, or as a person targeting.

Of course, life doesn’t work that way.

But it did help me understand some of what transpired, to the extent that I can, given that much of what happened happened behind closed doors in secret meetings and through character assassination (mine, primarily). It helped me believe that I was an okay person for choosing love, or at least empathy, instead of anger and toxicity, when society deems love and empathy the choice of the person who is willing to be ” a doormat.” It helped me recognize that my empathy is a fucking superpower. It helped me keep in mind the humanity of my housemates — even as two of them worked furiously to deny me mine. It’s helped me figure out the warning signs I should look for in future relationships and pushed me to speak about how abusive relationships can develop outside of friendship and intimate partnerships and work, because of course they can. And I think it’s also deepened my level of empathy.

I don’t believe it’s possible to run out of love, though not everyone deserves my (or your!) love and it’s not worth the effort to try and get everyone to like me (you!), and for me, it’s also not worth the energy that I’d have to maintain to hate them. But that’s not to say that knowing those things, and deciding to act differently, suddenly makes me all better. I still struggle with tunnel vision and sadness and anxiety when I see either of the two most toxic of those housemates — and I do, sometimes, see them, because our circles still sometimes overlap. But for me, toxicity doesn’t work. I have to choose empathy, and hope that one day I’ll be able to replace the anxiety and sadness I feel when I think about that house, or those two housemates that especially made my life hell, with something a little like indifference.

*Another microaggression, aside from the fact that my ally and I discussed this and that it was fucked up and tried to figure out ways that we could both live and work with the fact that this was becoming a reality in the place we lived, to which I’m incredibly grateful. The microaggression stems from this: Men are more likely to be listened to, and credited for ideas, than women.

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