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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The DNA of Relationships

Note: I am always deeply honored when someone values my opinion and trusts my judgment enough to ask for my opinion. Forget 'imitation'. I always experience it as the sincerest form of flattery.

Sometimes, however, the situations are so thoroughly human - so filled with the simple, exquisite complexity of the human enterprise - that I don't quite know where to begin.  

Listening to some of the stories of being human is like watching the double helix strand of DNA twirling before your eyes - breathtakingly beautiful and painfully confounding.  I don't pretend to understand it all.

When you add the anonymity of communication in cyberspace, knowing how to respond can be quite a conundrum.

So, my friends, I'm asking for your help.

I got the following letter from a man with whom I've had several email exchanges over the years. He occasionally asks my advice about things, but this one seems more complicated to me.

Please don't waste too much energy getting caught up on the "I'm a heterosexual male" defensive thing. My experience tells me that this is a pretty normal posture for men of his age - including the un-acted upon impulse for violent response. Please try to stay focused on the problem he presents.

My experience of him is that he is a kind, generous, thoughtful, intelligent man - which may be part of the problem.

I have some initial responses, but before I write back to my friend, I would like to hear what you all have to say. Because I deeply value your opinion.

I have changed all the names. I would be so grateful for your advice.

Thanks in advance for all your help.

Dear Mother Elizabeth,

I can surely understand if you do not have time to take up something like this, or cannot see the situation well enough at your distance. If either of those, or some other cause, prevents you answering, I would like to know that.

But if this concern of mine brings any thoughts to your mind that you could share with me, I would appreciate it.

I am exclusively heterosexual, and I have a girlfriend. I am 62 and she is 56, so in a large sense, sexuality is a matter of cuddling, enjoying a movie on the DVD player, and remembering what it was like when we were in our 30s. Getting old has its compensations.

The problem is that I am being stalked by a developmentally challenged man about age 50 in our congregation who has some unresolved issues around attraction to men. Simply put, Brian is in love with me, and lacks the self-awareness and the social skills to manage his feelings.

At 62, male, hetero, and otherwise occupied, I find it disconcerting to be stalked. I get angry, and poor Brian has no clue as to how his behavior affects me. Despite my own physical limitations, I have been tempted to deck Brian on more than one occasion.

There are very few resources within reach for resolving this through the sort of parochial channels through which it might have been resolved in other times and places.

Brian's family is unaware that there is anything unusual about their son. His mother was in her mid 40s when Brian was born, and so is in her mid 90s now. She is a wonderfully resilient and persistent person, with whom I have had a couple of disconnects of the ordinary sort that happen in church.

When she was placed in charge of the kitchen one time, her first act was to throw out about $25 worth of food I had left in the refrigerator for later use by a morning bible study group of whose existence she was unaware.

When I protested, she informed the rector that I am an unsanitary person and one of questionable mental stability. The sort of thing that happens every day in the parish church.

Dorothy is finally starting to slow down. She is having skeletomuscular problems, and doesn't come to church very often any more. But Brian is there about every Sunday nowadays. My sense is that Dorothy will die soon, and I am not sure what will happen to Brian. I doubt that he is capable of living unsupervised, and his family may be planning to ship him back to a group home when she dies. But I don't know,and I have to deal with him Sunday.

So I have dealt with gay men all my life. In most cases, "gaydar" has worked in my favor, and the subject never came up. On the one or two occasions when one of them has asked me about my interests, a simple, "Actually, I'm straight." ...was all it took. And I have always gotten along with gay co-workers, co-religionists, and members of the community. It has been a minimal problem.

But Brian is different. He bothers everybody, but I think I am the only member of the community who has a sense of being stalked. Brian a high school graduate, and was inappropriately mainstreamed, so he lacks the kind of social training he should have received as a pre-teenager and later.

At one time his family were quite prominent in town. His father was plant manager, which was the largest employer in five counties.

But now they are just here, and, sort of like Emily in "A Rose for Emily," they rely on the past for their position. Brian walks up to anybody and starts talking. Most people can just listen for a couple of minutes and then say, "excuse me, the paint is peeling off the wall and I need to go hold it up," or equivalent, and Brian moves on to the next person.

Like many people at his level, (very high functioning autistic and educably retarded), Brian has never learned to begin a conversation at the beginning. He never walks up and says, "Good morning; how are you..." instead he walks up and says, "I was at a yard sale yesterday and I found an album of Spike Jones from 1952 and it has a picture of a frog on the front."

No lead-in, no pleasantries, and no sense at all that he is really aware of you or could care at all about you or what you are thinking. In other words, no basic conversation skills at all. Add to that the fact that if I try, in the ordinary coffee-hour manner, to avoid Brian, he follows me.

He will follow me down the hall to the music room, and if I go in and lock the door while I divest, he will be waiting by the door when I come out. He always has some simple thing he is desperate to tell me. "I found a software program that processes music!" or "My mother's back is bothering her again!" This stated, he gives a little giggle that causes his whole body to tremble, and he seems to have reached orgasm. Then he just follows me like a sad little puppy until I am able to escape the building.

I have had Brian follow me all over the parish hall, and I have had him chase me around Wal-Mart, the YMCA, Food Lion, and other places. It drives me crazy. None of my fellow parishioners is intuitive enough to intervene or try to distract Brian. The rector ignores the obvious, and is disinclined to help me with anything, anyway.

Given a lack of anyone around who might help me, of proper handling of Brian by his family, and of any confidence in my ability to negotiate with him directly, do I have any options in regard to managing him myself? Must I resign myself to dodging him the best I can? I am just at wits' end right now. I am afraid I may end up punching Brian out, and then I am sure I will be arrested for assault.

How does one talk to a person like that? What could I do to correct Brian? And furthermore, am I letting him get to me too badly? Do I not have the right for a repeated misbehavior such as this to be recognized as his problem rather than mine, and get some community support somewhere?

I don't know what to do. As I read back over this, I can see that it is too much to ask of you to think that you might be able to advise me. But I will be grateful if you have any thoughts.

Thanks, and many blessings...


eileen said...

Oh boy. Talk about complicated. Ooof.

Austics generally have an extremely low awareness of social cues and/or rules - it's part of their condition. Immediate, firm feedback given as kindly as possible, that is direct in nature "might" work best. Something along the lines of "Hi Brian. I'd like to talk to you about something - I get the feeling that you are working on your conversational skills, which is a great thing - so I thought it might be helpful to give you some feedback. Would that be ok? (If he says yes...)I like it when people who are starting a conversation with me start by saying, "Hello, how are you? How have you been? rather than starting a conversation with me kind of in the middle, like you sometimes do. Maybe you aren't aware of it?" Maybe at sometime, a signal could be established that the "conversation" is over, and that it is time for Brian to move on to practice his skills on another parishoner? Because it's likely that he's had redirection of this nature throughout his life, it might work, and help establish boundaries - which it sounds like your friend is desperate to establish with Brian.
It's just a thought - a very complicated and uncomfortable situation. Prayers!

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Wow. First, stalking is not only men or women, not only gays or straight, and not even the mentally and socially challenged, as in this case.

Any person, esteemed and generally belived to be stable, may do it.

Here also the mother seems to be a "case". Not at all the usual thing.

And some don't let themselves be spoken to, at all. Indeed, they will take a n y t h i n g as an encouragement - even if it isn't :-(

Maybe the approaching death of his mother will present a way out - for him and you. But on the other hand, maybe not...

The non-reaction of those around is also quite common. Maybe you should just make yourself scarse for some time.

If it can be proposed, somewhere to somebody, Brian needs therapy.

Muthah+ said...

Challenged people like Brian need boundaries. It is very important that you set your boundaries with Brian and ask him to observe them. The most important thing is remaining non-anxious. If you get angry, you will escalate his attraction. Be kind, set the boundary and then stick to it until he gets it. I have had more success with this way of dealing with challenged adults than any other thing. It will take time but it will happen. And you will be able to maintain your demeanor in the parish.

If you can spend some moments with him each Sunday and then set the boundary that you need to go to the choir room, or that you need to speak to someone else be clear. Most of all don't get anxious about his presence. That is what he keys on --not intentionally, but that is all people and animals key on.

I am not sure that the attraction to you is so much sexual as it is loneliness for a friend.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you for all your helpful comments thus far. Thanks, especially to Barry who pointed out a glitch. I found one and corrected it. If you see any others, I would be grateful to be informed.

DaYouthGuy said...

I agree with Eileen. The gentleman needs to take some control. With an autistic person being direct (while still being gentle) is vitally important. Give him some time (love the idea of helping him with his skills)and then be very direct in saying Brian I need to talk with some other people now. You have a good day.

I'm confused by his feeling that this is sexual in nature. Maybe I missed the element in letter but this sounds simply like Brian has latched onto someone he likes, not at all uncommon. Brian's sexual understanding is surely unfocused so it seems to me the sexual side is probably a minor aspect (and yes there's a certain way-out-on-a-limb quality to that assessment). That can be handled by again being assertive deflecting any advances with clear indications that you have a girlfriend and that's all there's room for.

I'm also concerned by his feeling that his rector is disinclined to be helpful. Working with clergy I know there can be a lot of reasons for that one. Unfortunate if true. May want to approach the rector asking the same kinds of questions. If the relationship is that bad with the clergy and he gets no support from the parish the obvious question (and solution) is to find a new parish.

KJ said...

I would agree with all that has already been communicated. As a speech-language pathologist (AKA, "speech therapist), this is a population with which I am familiar, and agree with DaYoutGuy in that this would appear to be more of a "social skills" difficulty than a "stalking" or sexual interest situation (OCICBW).

I would agree with helping Brian understand boundaries, but I would make sure that a third party is involved. Use the same safety policies implemented by the church as if dealing with a child (e.g., two adults present, preferably, one a woman). However, the key challenge in developing social skills is the individual's lack of ability to take the perspective of another, and that has to be a part of the intervention. This does not happen in a conversation. Brian likely has no idea how his behavior is affecting the object of his attention.

I'm not sure that the author's initiating Brian's eduction on these matters is the best idea, but at the same time, he has a wonderful opportunity to help Brian learn how to develop relationships and friendships appropriately. I have no idea about the resources of the church, but here would be the scenario I would want to see if the concerns was occurring in my parish:

1. Yes, talk to the rector! What he does or does not do with the information is his/her problem. However, he/she may be able to direct the author to resources available within the congregation or diocese.

2. If there is such a resource within the congregation (special services teacher, speech-language pathologist, psychologist), meet with that person, preferably with director(s) of children, youth and adult ministries. This is a teaching moment, not just for Brian! Discuss the concern, create at plan. Is the Spirit leading the congregation to new opportunities? Brian is not the only individual within, or without, the church with these concerns, typically ignored by all of us collectively (Here ends my mini-rant.).

3. If such a resource is not to be found in the congregation, then I would make it a priority to find a professional who can come and consult with those involved and provide helpful training. If Brian had no food or shelter, would the church say, "How do we make this problem go away?" or identify and develop the necessary resources. Brian's need is no less real and requires no less effort. (Oops! Fell into another mini-rant.).

I'm sorry, my professional angst has "leaked." I trust these is some of the stuff of help in the above.

James said...

Along the lines of due diligence would be for your friend to do _both_ Safeguarding God's People and Safeguarding God's Children. If he is uncomfortable doing it in his parish, perhaps you can help him locate another parish in his diocese or even in another diocese. This will serve to limit his liability and the liability of the church.

I'd be clear with your friend that this is not that you are concerned about your friend's behaviour but that these are simply good hoops to jump through these days. In the course of it he may well identify individuals who are in similar situations or who have experience with vulnerable adults. There is incredible empowerment in knowing one is not alone.

Having said that, I agree with the other comments, particularly KJ's, boundaries are the key.

I would encourage your friend to be intentional in remembering Brian in prayer daily. It will be particularly difficult at first to transform prayer for Brian from "Oh Lord, please fix this problem" to "I hold Brian and his family in prayer." Part of this will be a letting go of some of the anxiety.

Another thing that I would encourage is that your friend and his girlfriend take a break from their parish at regular intervals e.g., every 6-8 weeks, perhaps going to a parish in another city (if possible). This might provide a liturgical experience, with reduced anxiety, for them to recharge their batteries.


Bill said...

We get in groups of developmentally challenged all the time. It gives them an opportunity to learn simple tasks and also social skills. The one thing I’ve noticed is that their aides are very exact in explaining either tasks or social skills. If one of them comes in and fails to greet you, he is brought up short until he gives the expected greeting. They set boundaries and hold the clients to those boundaries. They can greet you and ask how you are doing but they are never allowed to monopolize your time and they are never allowed to get uncomfortably familiar with you. There can be absolutely no ambiguity.

Somebody already mentioned it, but subtlety will not work. You have to be exact when you explain what is wrong and how you expect him to act. You can’t worry about hurting their feelings. Once explained you have to reinforce those expectations each and every time he strays. It’s not a question of being mean or uncaring, You have to be firm; you have to be relentless.

renzmqt said...

Wow - I briefly scanned the other comments and decided in the end to share my own thoughts first, then go back and read. I'm assuming that your writer is a priest or minister? There seems to be unresolved issues on both sides to be perfectly frank - but that is neither here nor there. Boundaries are important and it's not clear to me that the writer has set appropriate boundaries for himself and for Brian.

I wonder why he feels some kind of responsibility to what will happen to Brian when the mother expires, for example.

If this were my situation, I would bring up my concerns (sans the sexuality theories) to other key members of the congregation, requesting that they assist him in establishing and enforcing boundaries and in being consistent.

I see nothing wrong in sitting down with say the Vestry and explaining that Brian's behavior has become taxing.

It almost appears that the writer is reluctant to be firm and direct and instead is being inconsistent, indirect, and evasive.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

These are all wonderful comments, providing great insights. I am never disappointed with the quality and calibur of your wisdom and knowledge.

I want you to know that I will be sharing the content of your comments with my friend.

This is not to cut off discussion or additional comments but to thank you all thus far.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

I read this post first thing this morning and it struck a chord with me, but I didn't have time to write a response. Everyone else has since covered the points I would have made (don't be subtle, don't try to handle it alone, be sure to participate in whatever "Safe Church" workshops are available.) The only things I might add are that if you are generally a good pal to most people, setting limits may feel awkward at first, and try not to attach any significance to this person's way of being. I remember how I overthought encounters with certain people before I realized it was OK to be kindly but set clear limits.

It seems to me that the letter writer is encountering a new kind of relationship that doesn't fit the profile of anything he's used to. He may find it helpful to connect with someone who does counseling and/or pastoral care and get clear on his own personal "bill of rights." The first time certain limits are set may seem unkind, but those limits will allow you to participate in a network that sustains a person with problems like Brian's.

june maffin said...

If the suggestions already made don't work - it might require another approach: not giving him a reaction/response. So, don't enter into coversation, don't verbalize.

In other words - don't engage - don't enrage.

And let the rector/parish priest know what has been happening, how you've dealt with it to date and how you're about to deal with it.

As for the engagement being sexual - you've said that he bothers everyone but you more than others. Perhaps it's because he gets feedback/response/reaction from you and has translated that as 'friendship.' Taking the above approach ('tough love') will hopefully help him realize that you don't want to be his friend or have a friendship with him. That doesn't mean you don't care for him as a fellow Christian, a brother ion Christ. It means that you are establishing your own boundaries ... and loving your neighbour "as yourself." Blessings to you as you move through this difficult time.

Paul Powers said...

Good advice from a lot of people. You are truly blessed, Elizabeth. One point, though: from your friend's point of view, he is being sexually harrassed. He may be misreading Brian, but since we're not there, there's no way for us to know, so I think we need to respect his perception and assume he's correct. And for this reason, I think his sexual orientation is relevant. If he were an uncloseted gay man, he might find Brian's attention annoying and unwelcome, but he probably wouldn't worry about unconsciously giving off a "gay vibe." It's not uncommon for heterosexual men to have some insecurities about their "sexuality," and I think that has to be considered when counseling them. (A gay man may also be more skilled in deflecting the advances of someone he's "just not that into").

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks again to so many of you who have commented here and to me privately. I most certainly am very blessed

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I don't have anything to add (finally got a chance to sit down and really read it) except to reinforce boundaries are key in both autism and Asperger's. It's important to remember what might sound "harsh" to you or the mother, is actually "appropriate" in this situation b/c the nature of the disorder is they do not "get" the subtleties of conversational speech rules.