A friend of mine has hired me to edit their novel — developmental editing. It’s a deep reading of a piece that’s not a simple proofreading or copy editing read through. The editor may read through the work several times looking for consistency, structure, meaning, logic, etc. It can be a long process and requires really thinking about what you’re reading. You can’t just do it on automatic. Fortunately, my friend wrote a novel that’s not only a good story, but also leaves the reader with lots of things to think about.
One of the characters comes to the conclusion, several times, that no matter how hard she tries to do the right thing, the thing that is required of her, it always seems to get her into trouble. She’s chopped away bits and pieces of herself over the years to try to fit into what is required by the many factions in her life, and even then, it’s not good enough. It’s never good enough.
I identified with what that character was going through, so it made me think about that feeling. That feeling that bits and pieces of you have been given away or stolen to accommodate others, and it’s never good enough. It’s a very familiar feeling for me, as I sure it is for others as well.
When I used to go out dancing, there was a bit of a protocol as to how things were done on the dance floor. Just as in walking on the sidewalk or driving along a street, there are “rules of the road” to allow everyone on the dance floor space to dance, express themselves, and have a good time. There was an assumption that everyone was allowed so much of a “bubble” around themselves. Sometimes you’d bump into someone, or they’d bump into you, but for the most part, most people respected the “bubble,” respected the space.
Except for those people. You know who they are. They’d come on the dance floor and it seemed like no matter where you danced, they were there in your space, bumping into you and not apologizing, not moving away, not allowing you your space. So you might move to another part of the dance floor, and there they’d be again. Or you might dance “smaller” so as not to take up all your bubble. This usually meant they just danced “bigger,” taking up what you weren’t using anymore. You could try dancing “bigger” as they did, but that risked some type of altercation.
So, you might leave the dance floor in a huff to get a drink, only to find that you’re now standing next to one of those people, who is pushing you aside to get the bartender’s attention before you. If you’re lucky, you finally find yourself some space outside in the parking lot having a cigarette, where you can swear at the world, swing your arms and kick the curb, getting the encroacher out of your system.
If you’re lucky and they haven’t followed you out to bum your cigarette. If you’re not so lucky, then there they are again. They took your space and your drink and they literally want to take your breath as well.
I don’t go out dancing anymore, but that concept seems to hold true in other parts of my life. There are people out there who don’t seem to want to acknowledge that you are allowed your space, your breath. They walk into a room and take up the entire room with their presence. I’m not talking charismatic people who have a large presence, I’m talking about those people who steal the room. They steal your space and everyone else’s space in the room. They steal their attention, their voice, their breath.
If you are anything like me (and there are a ton like me, I know), you think, “fine, I’ll just manage fine in this little corner.” So you move to that corner, thinking that now the person stealing all that space will be mollified. But they’re not. That they have 75% and you have 25% is not good enough for our breath stealer. They want more. So you make your space smaller. You cut away at your space, letting them have 80% while you decide 20% is enough for you, if they’d just leave you alone and let you have it.
If we were talking sharing the bed with the cat, the dog and your assorted family members, this might be okay, comforting even, but we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about people who want to steal your space. You give up more and more of your space, more and more of your place at the table and that’s still not good enough for them. Your physical, emotional or psychological parts of yourself that you hold space for? They want that. Everything you hold dear to yourself — your ideas, your space, your opinions, your emotions — they want.
Why? I think each breath stealer has his or her own reasons, insecurities. It makes them bigger, more important. Or maybe they’re just absolutely clueless about how they are the big monster in the room stealing everyone else’s life.
In Gullah culture, there’s a creature called a Boo Hag, a breath stealer. They’re like a vampire in that they steal your life, your energy, but by stealing your breath, not your blood. They creep into your home and float above your body and steal your breath as you sleep. When you wake in the morning, you have no energy. Or if that’s not enough, they might steal your skin (you can read about it here).
Probably everyone plays the part of the Boo Hag at one time or another in their lives. I mean, if things go the way they’re supposed to on any given day, then life is a bit of a give and take, right? You might give of yourself one day and take the next. Like the marketplace, you get paid and go out and spend your money for goods, which pays someone else, who goes out and spends money for goods or services, and so on, etc. You breathe in from someone one day, and breathe back into them the next. And there will be days when, whether or not you’re aware of it, you will be the one playing the part of the Boo Hag. You will be selfishly demanding the space, the breath, the opinions, the energy. They are all yours, dammit! People OWE you! Didn’t they know that?
Then you get over it. The huge bubble you have selfishly built from other people’s space is burst and you are once more a normal person, not a monster. You are once again seeing that, yes, other people deserve their own place at the table, just as you do. They deserve their space, breath, ideas, opinions, etc. This is an exchange.
But some people never “get over it.” The always demand more and more space. Nothing and no one is ever good enough for them. They want it all.
I know other women probably deal with this, maybe other minorities do, too. But you’re with a group of people and you don’t talk much. You know it’s safer to just keep quiet. But then you’re asked to speak up, so you do. And as soon as you start to speak up as much as the others at the table — not more than, just as much as — you’re suddenly labeled the loud-mouthed bitch by the breath stealer at the table (usually just one or two, because they won’t tolerate others like themselves at the same table). After listening to said Boo Hag talk about their work for hours, you finally talk about what you do or what you’re working on or other things in your life, and their eyes glaze over or they decide to interrupt you. “Too much drama” for them to have to listen and pay attention to someone outside of themselves.
I remember sitting at dinner with a couple and they went on and on against immigrants and people with mental health issues, and several other demographics outside themselves. Grand statements that swept millions of people into a corner of “undesirables,” without any thought given to any of those people as individuals at all. And this couple employed immigrants and had family members with physical and mental health issues. They had made a good living doing what they liked to do and instead of turning that good outward to help others, they decided they wanted more, and that the only way to get more was to make sure others had less. (At dinner that attitude made itself known by how often they talked across me or others whenever we tried to make a point or state an opinion.) Making a good living wasn’t good enough. Living in their space was no longer good enough. Now they had to take that space away from others as well. I used to think of them as friends. Did I change? Did they? Will they ever come back to themselves? Or were they always selfish bastards?
I was watching a film with friends one night and it wasn’t the best movie. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t bad. We kept watching. But one of the people there kept heckling it. If you’re at home alone watching a movie and heckling it, fine. Besides, you can turn it off, unless you want to see how truly awful it is. But the movie wasn’t in the heckler’s home, and it wasn’t being turned off. And she kept heckling, not just saying how bad it was, but also using an entire demographic of people (in this case middle-aged women) to disparage it. Why? Why use a whole group of people who have done you no wrong to disparage something? It wasn’t entertaining. It was rude and selfish and so bigoted against an entire group of people. I’m a middle-aged woman, for crying out loud! I was getting offended, but I did what I do, which is kept quiet, made my space smaller. That’s what we’re taught to do with rude people, right?
Was that just a bad, selfish moment for her? Should it have been a learning moment for me? Should I have said something? Will she ever see it on her own? Will she ever come back to herself? Or has she permanently morphed into the selfish monster who wants to claim all the space?
It’s like bullying. When I was a kid I was bullied. Back then, you just put up with it. When Todd and Tom wanted to chase me home and throw rocks at me, I learned to hide until they left school and make my way home a different way. When Robbie and John called me names, I ignored them. I played on another part of the playground with other kids. I tried to make myself as inoffensive as possible. Ignore it and it will stop. And sometimes that works with bullying. But other times?
Other times they decide that it’s no fun when you ignore them, and to run you down with their bicycle is more fun. They want your space. They want to claim the air you breathe.
When I was a kid and that happened, I ran home to my mom and grandparents and they called other kids’ parents. “Things were discussed” and a bulk of the bullying stopped. But when you’re an adult, you don’t have someone to run home to, except maybe your cat. You just have yourself, maybe a trusted friend to talk it over with, to figure out how to deal with it.
So what do you do? Do you keep self-editing pieces of yourself? Stripping things away to become less and less around others who demand more and more? That doesn’t seem right. But then, to go back to the dance floor analogy, trying to constantly dance with your elbows out so you don’t lose what little space you have is exhausting. That’s not right either. To go back to the bullying example, you could try to find another part of the playground to be on, and that will be okay for a while. But these people don’t go away.
My go-to strategy has always been to keep politely silent. Nod and smile until I get home where I can lock the door between them and me. I know that at least this space I can call my own, as long as I can pay the rent. In this space I can write my thoughts and think my thoughts and they are wholly my own.
But I can’t always shut myself away can I? Maybe that’s what we’ve all ended up doing in some way or another? Maybe that’s why some people become shut ins? They just want their space to be theirs without interference from the big, monstrous breath stealers, and that’s the only way they can safely keep their space.
I have no ultimate answer for this. The most I can say is 1) that the Breath Stealer Monsters are real. Watch out for them. And 2) I enjoy developmental editing because it leads me on thoughts like this one.