Complimenting the Enemy

Friend and real-life blogger Heina is doing a Compliment a Day in 2014 project, which reminded me of the time I did my own compliment project. A much lamer, and much more serious one. I was tasked with complimenting my alcoholic mother once a day every day for a week. Then a month, then three months, then six months. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I only made it 2 and a half months. But I still learned a lesson. Mainly, how many different ways a person can compliment the same pair of shitty craft-fair earrings.

Just kidding, it was a valuable experience. It should be a made-for-TV-movie.

When my mom relapsed, I was furious with her. Everything she did was wrong. I was about 15 at the time, and I would spend hours on the phone with anybody who would listening talking about what a fuck-up she was. Finally, my long-suffering sponsor made me tell her one good thing about my mother. My best answer was somewhere along the lines of “she pays most of the rent?”

Not good enough.

My sponsor suggested I give my mother one compliment a day for a week. So I did: Earrings, shirt, shoes, ring, earrings, bracelet, ring. Done. She’s still a useless bitch, it’s just a good thing she wears so much jewelry.

I called my sponsor and informed her that I did her stupid assignment, that it was dumb, and I didn’t learn a thing. She suggested a month of compliments.

In my experience of the 12 steps, there are no rules. There are no assignments, and no homework. The AA preamble says “the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking,” and, as far as I know, all other 12 step programs have a similar core principal. You don’t have to believe in God, you don’t have to get a sponsor, or do the steps, or any of this shit. The whole point of the program is to get together and share what worked. What other people do with that information is their business. So when my sponsor suggested the compliment thing, she did so because she had personally experienced a positive change as a result of doing it herself. If I did or didn’t do what she suggested, it made no difference to her. Only to me. Which is why, despite my outward reluctance to learn anything from my mother’s relapse, I did it anyway.

I ran out of clothing and jewelry pretty quickly, especially when she decided to stay in bed all day. Complimenting her was also a challenge on days when she was trying to start a fight. It’s hard to answer “YOU STUPID BITCH!” with “nice shirt” without making it worse. Sometimes “I appreciate how much your value your [insert thing she is currently screaming about]” is a compliment.

I started asking her to elaborate on the details of her life, or tell me stories from before I was born in order to get an opening I could stick a compliment into. It was during this time that I learned that, like me, she was kicked out of my grandmother’s house at 13, but unlike me, she’d had no stable place to go. She lived with a boyfriend for awhile, then she lived with a teacher. Eventually she dropped out of school and lived on the streets or in flop houses. I’d always known she started using heroine when she was 14, but I didn’t know she’d been kicked out of the house before then.

I began to realize things about my mother I’d either never thought of, or that I’d taken for granted. I knew she was a survivor. You pretty much have to be when you’re a single woman as well as a homeless drug addict, but I’d never acknowledged the extent of it. I had viewed her relapse as a weakness. But that’s not really what happened. Here was a woman, who, for almost 30 years, lived her life alone. Even before she was ever kicked out, my grandmother let my grandfather abuse her just like she let him abuse all her kids. Either through her own choices, or through an accident of brain chemistry, she’d taken a hard path. With no training, preparation, or support, she’d endured through whatever means she could cobble together.

It’s easy to be self-righteous about principals and loyalty when you’ve never been a 14 year old homeless girl, with nowhere to go, and an habit to support. It was easy for me to stand in judgement of my “useless” mother when I refused to look at the whole picture.

As I complimented her, my own perspective changed. There’s a strength inside my mom that I will probably never comprehend. She has skills that, because of her intervention, sporadic as it was, I did not need to learn. She’s a hard woman. I sometimes wonder if a person could be born in America today and turn out like her. The circumstances of her adolescence and young adulthood aren’t easily replicated. Children seem to be communally cherished and kept track of in a way they weren’t when she was growing up. It was possible to throw away a person before they even began.

That said, the compliment project changed nothing on the outside. She sank lower and lower, eventually she became abusive and I moved out of the house. At one point, I stopped talking to her, and only recently started again, not because I forgive her, or am under any illusion that she’s changed, but because it’s easier for me emotionally when I know where she is.

Not only is my mom a bad mom, she’s actually not that great of a person. The months I spent complimenting her didn’t change that. But I went from thinking of her as useless, stupid, weak, and a host of other complete under-estimations, to realizing that she was smart, vicious, persistent, and charismatic. That she’s the kind of woman who endures in spite of everything; who hides every card until she has a full house, and who has no compunctions in the defense of herself. I have a lot of feelings about this person, and admiration is one of the most confusing for those who know me.

Not only is it difficult to think of someone as being completely bad, it’s also unwise. When we think of someone else as simply bad, we are unable to understand how they think. We can’t predict their moves, nor can we avoid making their mistakes. All the time I wasted thinking of things in black and white, I was making myself feel better by comparison, but this ego stroking kept me from an understanding that would have made my life so much easier. It’s bad business to remain ignorant on the principal of righteousness.

I like complimenting people. I don’t do it enough. It’s sad that I usually only make an effort to compliment people I have trouble dealing with. Sometimes I compliment them to their face. Other times I do it behind their back, or to myself. Complimenting people doesn’t always make you friends, but it will always teach you about the other person if you do it right.

I know everyone who reads this and then gets a compliment from me will wonder if I hate them or something. Believe me, if I hate you, you know it. I’m rarely able to hide how I feel. If you’re still unsure, ask. I’ll tell you.