Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Chapter 3-3: When People Make Bad Things Worse

What far too many of us learn in our deepest darkest hours – our times of greatest need – is that we truly are alone.  There really is no one there for us.  We learn that in the face of unbearable pain we are better off not asking for help.  We are better off trying to figure it out on our own.

It is not only that others can't fix the problem. While that would be nice, for so many of us the social landscape gets far bleaker than this.  What we realize is that, in our known world of human beings, there is no one who sees the world the way we do. Perhaps even more painful, there may be no one who seems to notice or even care why we have come to see the world the way that we do.

If you want to understand so-called behavioral ‘disorders’ - and what is going on with far too many people - this is a really important point to get.  The fact of the matter is that the four demographics that society loves to hate - 'mental illness', 'addictions', 'criminals' and 'the homeless' - all have one thing in common.  An estimated ninety (90!) percent of us are survivors of childhood traumas.

What does this mean.  Well, think about the last chapter - those basic human needs.  We are people for whom basic needs of life have not been met.  On core dimensions of living important to all human beings - physical, material, social, emotional, developmental - our lives have been characterized by fear and uncertainty.

But that's not all.  For much in life that is traumatic, relationships are a known protective factor. Johanne Hari, The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think (Huffington Post 1/20/2015), http://www.goo.gl/okZJGL.  But what if such protection is missing...? Even worse, what if human relationships are a big part of the part the problem - as seems to be the case for far too many of us...?

Here is how the relational impoverishment of modern society plays out to produce the 'behavioral health' movie the industry theatre has been featuring:

People Make Bad Things Worse

(Adapted from Intentional Peer Support by Shery Mead)
Imagine being a kid - maybe you're a toddler, preschooler, grade school age or even a teen. Something happens.  You feel bad.  You go to someone in your life for help.  But instead of making it better, they make it worse.  They laugh or make fun of you.  They ignore you or tell you they're too busy.  They get mad or irritated that you bothered them.  They jump into hyper-drive and fix things in ways that leave you out of your own life.  They miss the point, send you in the wrong direction, impose solutions you didn't want.
They cause more distress not less.  Maybe they actually hurt you or take away stuff you needed. Maybe they expect you to be grateful when you actually feel even more miserable.

Essentially, you end up with two problems instead of one. You still have the problem you started out with.  But you also have the new, added and equally insoluble problem: Now, there's a relationship with an important person in your life that isn't working.

Maybe it is not with every life issue. Maybe it is not with every person.  But it happens enough of the time with enough people that you begin to draw this conclusion:

When you go to human beings for help it gets worse instead of better. 

When human beings fail other human beings in times of great need, the options become very stark. We cope on our own, with what we have.  We fight, flight, or freeze with whatever resources or personal strengths are at our disposal.  Many of us check out emotionally, and some of us never come back.  A lot of us use drugs or alcohol, sex, diversion, pleasure of any kind to distract or kill the unrelenting pain.

A lot of us conclude that life is all about – perhaps only about – looking out for #1.  After all, we’re actively teaching people that when you really need help, other human beings are basically worthless.

The option is to look out for number one – and hope you don’t get caught.  Here you can see the origins of what we call ‘psychopathy’ plain as day embedded in modern social relations as usual.

If you want a better model of behavioral health than the medical model is giving us, think about what this means at different life stages:

If we're really little  when this kind of thing starts to happen (infants, preschool, grade school), we probably don't have much to work with. When feelings get intense and others don't help, the choices are pretty much fantasy, emotions or activity.   We withdraw into our own minds and develop our own worlds, losing touch with much that's happening around us.  We cry a lot, rage a lot or flip it over into a game where everything is funny.  We engage intensely, motor around, get wrapped up in our surroundings, or glued to favorite activities.

A lot of time this is the kind of stuff that gets labeled dissociative, ADHD or oppositional-defiant. A lot of it also goes unnoticed and just looks like regular living.  The important shift here, though, is in our relationships.  More and more, we're turning inward.  More and more, we're relying on stuff instead of people to make our world work.

Think about the impact of this if you're really young.   You barely know anything about life, yet there is no one you truly trust to ask about the life questions that trouble you the most.  Instead of having centuries of passed-down family and community knowledge to draw on, you're trying to figure it out on your own with the limited life experience and the developing  brain of small child.  It's hardly surprising that a lot of us miss the social cues. We didn't 'get the memo' because we never even knew to look.

Help Isn’t Helpful

(Adapted from Intentional Peer Support by Shery Mead)

Now fast forward a few years and get to adolescence.  You're carrying around a lot of questions and pain that you've mostly been handling on your own.  If you're like a lot of us, the way you learned to cope set you apart from your peer group.  So now you've got a decade of marginalization under your belt to compound the initial isolation.

Enter alcohol, drugs, sex, cars, money, mobility, freedom.  In effect, access to a whole new realm of potential 'pain-killers' has just opened up.  And with all that stuff going on inside, we're primed and ready to go.  Experience has taught us that there's no human relief in sight, so the moment the doors open we're off and running without a look back.  This is where a lot of us get labeled with conduct and substance use disorders.

This is also where a lot of us learn that the socially designated helpers make things worse rather than better.  All too often, these systems reinforce our views of human relationships as unresponsive, callous, burdensome. ineffective and out of touch with the reality of our minds and lives.  The policies and protocols of health and welfare offices all too often replicate the social dynamics that injured us in the first place.  It's not very long before we cross the provider industry off the list as well:

Even the 'expert' helpers can't, don't or won't help.  So much for expertise.  We're definitely on our own.

People Totally Suck, Even My Own Kind Rejects Me

(Adapted from Intentional Peer Support by Shery Mead)
Fast forward again to early adulthood.  Now we're old enough to have enough freedom to really do some damage.  We've already been labeled and identified as outsiders.  We already respond and relate to the world in socially-denigrated 'outsider' ways.

As a consequence, we have little felt connection with - and therefore little loyalty to - the rest of humankind.  We may even have tried peer support and found it wanting.  For us, it may just have seemed like more of the same.

Suffice it to say, at this point, a lot of us have become thoroughly convinced that no one has your back when you really need it and human society is basically worthless.  It's a dog eat dog world.  So, if you're going to get what you need to survive, you'd better look out for number one.
Some of us do that 'lawfully'.  Others of us don't.  Again, it's a matter of survival.

Now we become what you call the 'criminals' and the 'sociopaths' and the 'chronic' unreachables. Some of us fight back against these labels.  We register our pain and rage on small or large scales.  We are the ones who do the destructive or violent acts that you call 'senseless', 'amoral', 'unthinkable.' To us they were just another wake up call that you missed the point of.  Big surprise there.

People Who Need People

If the problem is relational, then the solution is relational too.  Huge numbers of us feel disconnected and cut off from the rest of humanity.  Many of us would give our eye teeth for a principled way back.  We don't know how to create it. Moreover, we've been disappointed or betrayed so many times that we don't know whether to trust it if it's offered.

Harm Reduction

Others of us have become so thoroughly disillusioned that we just want to be left alone.  Just give us a way to kill the pain and no reason to hurt you.  We'll leave you alone if you leave us alone.  But if you mess with us or what we need, watch out!  While you might see this as anti-social, many of us feel this  is a valid - even rational - way to feel given what society offered us and what so many of us have been through.  You're best bet, from our point of view, is to limit the harm and damage you've already caused by keeping us reasonably comfortable and entertained.

You might think of it as social welfare or just another 'con'.  But we prefer to call it a dignified, pragmatic 'win-win.  It reduces harm all-around.  And, when you think about it, it's a lot cheaper than court costs and prisons.


  1. Thank you- I just re-read this through a couple of times, and appreciate that it really provides a perspective on 'how we came to be this way' that is non-pathologizing and puts it into the realms of natural survival responses to pain.
    I was wondering if you might put the Jonathan Hare article link in a tinyurl, so that if people wanted to print this out, it would be easy to copy and check out?


Please share your thoughts: