I’m Still Failing at Empathy

I feel like a rotten person for admitting this, but despite my best efforts there are still people who I feel incredibly awkward around: elderly people over 90, people with developmental disabilities, police officers and just about any kid except my own. There is nobody I feel more awkward around though than my mother when she’s crying.

It’s exceedingly rare that she cries. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen it is when she’s at funerals or mourning afterward. Unfortunately, she got some horrible news about my uncle, her younger brother, yesterday about his ongoing battle with cancer.

Despite a year where it looked like immunotherapy treatment was appearing to work, in the last two months the tumor on his liver has grown rapidly. They are going to try an aggressive form of chemotherapy, but the doctor said if he doesn’t respond well, it’s going to be time to have some palliative care discussions.

Without getting into too much history, my uncle is eight years younger than my mother. Their parents weren’t the warmest or most attentive people. She missed out on a lot of typical middle and high school activities because she was required to babysit him. This created a bond that has always seemed almost more like mother and son rather than brother and sister to some of us in the family. In a lot of ways, she was his first kid and they have been immensely close ever since.

When it comes to death and funerals, my involuntary reaction is to mentally and emotionally detach. I’ve probably been to 20 wakes/funerals in my life and I recall crying at one, for one of my best friends when he was 18 and I was 21. I can almost always go look at the body and feel nothing. When people say, “He looks peaceful” or “She’s not suffering now,” I get the urge to say, “He isn’t peaceful. He isn’t anything” or “Of course she’s not suffering, but she’s also not feeling good. She isn’t feeling anything.” This is why I sit toward the back and only speak when spoken to at those things.

Detachment happens when I feel incredibly awkward and/or can sense I’m about to feel incredibly sad. Funerals and wakes are an intersection of both emotions.

Detachment turns off my empathy. It turns off all of my emotions, but the appropriate one in most situations I find myself detaching is empathy.

I perfected the art of detaching as a young kid. I think it was from when my babysitter would put me in a dark room, and I didn’t know how long I’d be there. I learned to trick my mind into seeing two hours as 15 minutes, or more accurately, suspending the typical sensation of time elapsing in my head.

It’s not all bad. I can sit at the DMV, or any waiting room, for an hour and barely notice it. Detachment is what made driving 9,000 miles this past August seem like a breeze and when I was in jail in early 2016, detachment let the days bleed into one another until I somewhat lost all sense of normal time elapsing.

The problem with detachment, and it’s a problem I’ve been trying to address throughout my recovery, is that it’s lead to a lifelong lack of empathy. When I hear or see my mother crying, it’s easier – and more natural for me – to shut down than to process it.

I think detachment and lack of empathy go hand-in-hand. I also think that I have empathy deep down, but I know that when I start to let it out, it doesn’t stop. I’m not mean to really old people or developmentally disabled people. They just make me so, so sad. I don’t like watching movies designed to make me cry either. And, in my very grueling therapy appointments that came early in recovery, I had to learn to schedule them at the end of the day because I’d be an empathetic wreck thinking about all the people I hurt. I didn’t want that to happen early in the day because then it was a lost day.

Sympathy I can do. Empathy I still have trouble with. For those who don’t know the difference, I described it this way in rehab once and the counselor said they were going to adapt it because it’s the bluntest they’d ever heard:

Sympathy = That sucks for you
Empathy = Sucks to be you

It’s a subtle difference, but with empathy, you’re putting yourself in a person’s spot and understanding how they feel. It’s relating to another’s emotions. With sympathy, it’s a sterile recognition of what the person is going through.

I’m not an idiot. I can recognize my mother is very sad by the fact she was crying on the phone and will probably be experiencing more of that in the future as this ordeal with my uncle continues. But I also either can’t, or don’t want to relate. I know that I should. I know that’s the right thing to do, but despite my recovery going smoother than most people’s, this is still a giant hurdle. I love my mother and I love my uncle. I don’t know what to say to either of them that is both genuine and won’t leave me a complete mess. In the past, my way of handling it is to just not say much of anything or pretend like it’s not happening.

I know what the comments are likely going to say on this post because I’m telling myself the same things: Suck it up, you’ve got to be there for them. Sometimes life is uncomfortable and avoiding it doesn’t help anyone. What would you want your child to do in the same situation?

I get it, I really do. And to give myself a tiny bit of credit, I’m better at this kind of stuff than I was before recovery. Several people, including my mother, have made mention I’m an overall better human, but that’s easy on most days. The dark days ahead are going to be challenging.

I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me at the beginning of recovery that the toughest part was going to be emotionally connecting and allowing myself to feel empathy for others. Now, it seems obvious it was going to be the toughest part. Hopefully I can learn to better deal with it.

Guilty or Not, I Think We Should Show a Little Empathy Toward Lori Loughlin

It’s important that I start this article with a disclaimer. I do not in any way condone or excuse the alleged crime of Lori Loughlin or the other parents involved in the highly-publicized college tuition admissions scandal making headlines. I also do not condone, minimize, rationalize or excuse the crime that I committed toward the end of 2013. I own it fully.

This isn’t really about either of the crimes. It’s about the way people react to it.

I was well known in Central Maine at the time of my crime and early 2014 arrest. I was the publisher of a popular magazine, the founder of a regional film festival and had just finished a term on the local City Council. I received awards along the way for all of my endeavors and to the people on the outside of my small inner circle, I was a pillar of the community.

Lori Loughlin rose to fame playing wholesome Aunt Becky on 80s/90s TV show Full House. While she kept her career alive after that with the occasional Lifetime woman-in-peril movie-of-the-week, she was never an actress who took roles where she swore, was violent or displayed skin/sexuality. When the wholesomest-of-wholesome networks, The Hallmark Channel, began pumping out carbon copy feel-good shows, she was a natural choice to become a regular on the channel. Most recently, she rejoined the Full House reboot on Netflix, reprising the role that started it all. She wasn’t just DJ and Stephanie Tanner’s Aunt Becky. She was Aunt Becky for anybody under 45 years old.

I was bailed out of jail roughly 40 minutes after I got there. In those 40 minutes, the State Police issued a press release (with incorrect information), the local newspaper had been to my office looking for me and TV news vans were parked in front of my house. I was the top story on TV news for the next several days and my arrest was played on the front page of the newspaper. Every time I made a court appearance, a newspaper reporter, photographer and at least two TV cameras were there.

From the moment Lori Loughlin’s name became part of this tuition scandal case, a day hasn’t gone by where there isn’t a load of articles online about what’s going on, even when she hasn’t made a public statement, has made one brief court appearance to hear her charges and then plead not guilty. The media can’t get enough of her and something as simple as standing in her driveway with her husband becomes public fodder. But let’s not just blame the media. The media is not a public utility. It is private business that makes its money giving consumers what they want.

 

Being singled out

There are over 200 people living within 5 miles of me who, like me, are on the state sexual offender registry. Not a single one got 20% of the media coverage I received, and many of them are there for graphic hands-on offenses that resulted in much harsher sentences than I received. I’m not saying I didn’t deserve what I got for behaving inappropriately in a chat room with a teenager, but those who committed far more heinous crimes received far less attention.

There were nearly 50 parents indicted in the college admissions scandal, but aside from Felicity Huffman, can you name one other involved beyond Lori Loughlin and her husband?

I don’t think it’s that difficult to attribute why Loughlin’s case – and mine on a much more regional level – garnered so much attention. People get a morbid enjoyment out of finding out a public figure is not as perfect as they portrayed, and get a cheap thrill out of seeing that person dealt with harshly.

As I personally learned, facts don’t need to get in the way of a good public flogging, especially on social media. It was surreal reading the venom spewed my way by so many people who neither knew me, nor the actual facts of the case. They served as judge, jury and executioner in the very opening days of what was a years-long legal ordeal.

I’ll admit I was as shocked as anybody else when the Lori Loughlin story broke. It was just something you never expect to read. But now, six weeks later, I’m really getting tired of people passing judgment on the merits of the case. We know very little of what has actually happened and we won’t know for a very long time, regardless of what “a source close to the family” told a magazine. The evidence appears damning, but how do I really know what’s been reported is accurate? There were key pieces of my case incorrectly reported for months. When you’re in the thick of a legal situation, you don’t call the media to split hairs about their reporting.

My career was over the day I was arrested. The board of directors of the magazine fired me and the annual film festival – only two weeks away – had to be canceled. My son was young enough that his classmates has no idea what happened, but my daughter was so bullied, she left her school, finishing that year at home and transferred to another school the following fall. My wife started to be treated like dirt at work – and even though she put up with daily sideways glances – was eventually fired for “underperforming.” I know it had to do with me. All of this happened before I ever entered a plea.

The Hallmark Channel fired Loughlin the day after the story broke and the Full House reboot said she wouldn’t be returning. Her daughters, who had a healthy social media presence, immediately stopped posting and in the case of her youngest daughter Olivia Jade, lost sponsorships. Neither of her daughters returned to school for fear of being bullied. Depending on which news source you read, the family is either leaning on each other for support, or they’re at each other’s throats pointing fingers. All of this happened before she ever entered a plea.

 

Put yourself in their shoes

The counterpoint to all of this is that when you court attention for doing good things and put yourself in the public eye, you’re going to receive a greater amount of attention when you do something bad. The solution is not to do something bad, but people sometimes have horrible lapses in judgment. I think most people would say that both Loughlin and I had everything that was coming to us, and from a legal point of view, I agree.

From a personal point of view, I can’t agree. I probably would have laughed at Loughlin’s situation 10 years ago, making jokes about it and believing it was only happening to her in a vacuum, but I’ve been through this kind of thing now. When you are well known and you make such a massive mistake, not only do you get what’s coming to you, but so many other people get what they don’t deserve. I think it’s important to not only remember them, but also to recognize that Loughlin is being publicly dragged through a personal hell that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Her life is going to be radically changed no matter the legal outcome.

While you’re watching Loughlin’s case unfold remember that the alleged crime affects far more people than just the defendant and they need to be kept in our thoughts as part of a bigger picture. While I wouldn’t have been capable of it 10 years ago, I urge and practice empathy now.

Hopefully you’ll never understand what’s it’s personally like to go through a public shaming and protracted legal ordeal, nor any of your close loved ones or friends will either. When that happens, it’s easy to develop empathy and to then apply it to similar situations. I ask you to practice that empathy now instead of having the “look at the car crash on the side of the road” reaction most Americans and those in the media are having.

Practice empathy. It feels better.

 

 

Practicing Empathy Has Been Huge to My Alcohol & Porn Addiction Recovery

Early in recovery, going through the inpatient rehabs, I was told many times I had a history of exhibiting a clear lack of empathy in my life’s decision making. I understood what they meant as I tended to be outwardly cold and indifferent. I would listen to another person’s problems simply to wait for my turn to talk and put on display I had mastery over their issues, which made me superior.

For most of my life, people did not come running to me for emotional support because they knew they’d be met with a logical answer for solving whatever ailed them. I’m sure there are people who are born with a legitimate lack of empathy, but mine was shut off as a defense mechanism.

I was the guy at funeral who would blurt things like “I don’t think he looks peaceful, I don’t think he looks dead” or “You’re right, he’s not suffering anymore. He’s not anything anymore.”

I knew even then how things like that sound, but it was a way for me to ignore not only my feelings, but theirs as well. I could barely deal with my own stuff. I didn’t need theirs cluttering up my head.

In recovery, I came to the recognition that I would need to work on how people perceived me. I wanted the world to know a more authentic Josh, not just the carefully crafted eccentric character I portrayed. I’d done such a good job building up these walls of emotional resiliency, people actually thought nothing was on the other side.

Because of my probation restrictions, I wasn’t able to get on social media for a long time. Lacking an audience for my philosophical or political rants was good for my mental health. I stopped following national and international news and I actively started to practice putting myself into other people’s shoes when they shared their stories.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard to let down my guard and let the world see my more authentic, empathetic self. It was less energy than trying to keep my armor up at all times. While I know many simply can’t believe this, it’s actually easier to find why you’re more alike with someone than why you’re different.

I think the biggest piece of self-realization came when I recognized most people didn’t care what I had to say and that was perfectly OK because almost nobody was ever going to change their opinion based on what I said, nor was changing their opinion going to result in anything different. They just wanted to be heard for reasons that had nothing to do with what they were saying.

There has been a giant change in the social landscape of America in the last five years, probably becoming it’s more outward “authentic” self as I’ve been going through the same process. It’s not like people just got racist and hypocritical and mean in the last few years. They always just hid it, the way I hid who I was. I think it’s politics and social media that have caused this change, but that’s a discussion for another time.

What I see in this world now is so much anger, fear and sadness. I see so many people who have such little sense of self-worth and need for validation. I see people who reach conclusions without even consciously deciding to ignore the facts. I see segmentation into more “tribes” than ever before and an instinct to blame others before looking within. I see who I proudly once was.

Five or six years ago, I wouldn’t have let myself care. I would have played along, making sure I portrayed myself as righteous to those who agreed with everything I said and vilify those who didn’t. I would have used my communicative skills to manipulate to get what I wanted in both my professional and private lives. I would have played the game so many other people were playing, fooling myself that I was two moves ahead of everyone else.

At the end of the day, when there wasn’t anyone around, I’d retreat to my world of alcohol and porn because I knew I wasn’t the guy I was showing the world, but I wasn’t ready to meet that guy either. The pornography and alcohol allowed me to run from myself.

I don’t use those things anymore and I don’t play that game anymore. I’m so much happier and healthier for it. Years ago, my life was about fooling myself into thinking I was successful. Now, if I give an interview and someone calls me a “pornography addiction expert” I kind of laugh inside my head….of all things to finally be successful at.

Today, I can clearly see all of the people who I acted like still living in the world around me. I couldn’t back then. I see the people with all of the negative emotion and non-constructive ways of dealing with it. I read the words of those who are so blinded by resentment and greed that they can’t fathom how resentful and greedy they are. I witness people pointing fingers at others and wonder if they could do that in a mirror for any length of time.

I see a world that appears to be on the verge of throwing punches or collapsing in tears. Who wouldn’t want to have the kind of defense mechanisms I used for all those years? Isn’t it obvious why addiction rates are sky high? Isn’t it clear why so many young people choose pornography over real life? And in a very sad way, isn’t it somewhat understandable why a person might confuse suicide with a positive conclusion?

I’ve read 101 definitions of empathy in the last few years. I’ve come to believe it’s about recognizing the character flaws in others, yet not letting those flaws disqualify you from caring. I think it’s also about recognizing what you see as flaws, other see as virtues, and debating which-is-which is a waste of energy. Empathy is about not letting your own baggage get in the way of someone else’s. It’s about understanding, even if they can’t, and especially when they can’t.