Monday, March 27, 2017

Chapter 2-6: Lived Experience of Other Conventional Responses

For many of us, personal experience with medical approaches to 'mental illness' raised some nagging questions.  While many of us continued to hold medicine and science in high regard, we also had to face some facts.  In our case, the medical model hadn't provided the answers we were looking for.  We wanted more than our doctors were offering.  Yet, often our doctors insisted that if they couldn't help us, no one could.

That left us in a precarious position:  Reject expert advice or follow our gut.  A lot of us were too afraid to leave.  We stayed put, often to our detriment.

For others of us, this was the turning point. We were determined to find help that felt to us like real help.  If the experts couldn't or wouldn't help us, then we would just have to find it ourselves.  So we rolled up our sleeves, and we went looking...

Others of us rejected the disease model approach from the outset.  We knew we had issues and problems – we’d hardly be human if we didn’t.  We didn’t want to make life harder for anyone, especially loved ones. Yet, something in us resisted the idea that medication or healthcare protocols were the answer.

We may have conceded that the pills and procedures seemed to work for others, but it just didn’t feel right to us. We believed our distress and intensity had meaning. We wanted to understand ourselves and make sense of what was happening to us. We couldn’t accept that our experiences were ‘just symptoms’ and that all would get better if we could just admit that we had ‘a disease.’

For all of our resistance, secretly, we may have longed for simple solutions.  What a relief it would be to just fit in like everyone else!  But, our conscience wouldn’t let us off the hook.  We couldn’t shake the feeling that something was happening inside of us that was worth knowing more about. Something we couldn't quite put a finger on kept nagging us to go deeper.

Psychotherapy and its Limits

Our inward curiosity led many of us to try psychotherapy.  For some this was the ultimate answer.  It might have taken several sessions – or even several years --  but eventually the lights went on.  We realized what wasn’t working, and we were able to do something about it.  Next thing you knew, we were on our way to the lives we had always wanted.

If that happened, we pretty much became true believers.  We couldn’t sing enough praises for the wise, insightful professionals who helped us get there. To our way of thinking, if everyone just did therapy, the world would be a better place.

Others of us were not as fortunate.  We may have enjoyed the therapy relationship and found it beneficial.  We may have met caring, insightful counselors and had rich, illuminating conversations. We may have looked forward to therapy and faithfully attended multiple sessions per week or month.
The problem was the rest of our lives.  We went home to families, friends and neighbors who had no idea who we really were inside.  More than anything, we wanted to feel accepted and belong.  We longed for real people, in our real lives, who 'got us' and understood.

Natural Supports and their Limits

Some of us were lucky.  Sitting right there, across the kitchen table, we found kindred spirits who really had walked in our shoes. It made all the difference in the world. They helped us gain a beachhead to access the rest of conventional society.  It was only a matter of holding on long enough to secure our full return.

For others of us, the outcomes were not so rosy. Compared to the skill of our therapists, others in our lives just couldn’t measure up.  With professional helpers, our concerns were received with grace, understanding and empathy.  But the same concerns were met with blank stares, awkwardness or outright rejection by family and lifelong friends.  They made excuses, left the room, or changed the subject. They asked if we had talked to our therapist or taken our medications.  They offered inane platitudes or patted us on the head as if we were children or pets.

In all fairness, these people usually cared about us a great deal. They meant to be reassuring and kind. The practical survival focus of modern society, however, had not equipped them to be companions on the inward journey.

The bitter painful outcome of many such conversations was this:  Despite the sincere desire of many well-intentioned others to be helpful, we often walked away feeling empty, demeaned or despairing. More and more, we felt irrelevant and disconnected from the people, relationships and social groups that mattered to us the most.

The very strength of professional psychotherapy was for many of us its greatest weakness.  The conversations with our therapists added a new level of richness and insight to our internal world for which there were few meaningful cultural outlets.  In effect, they made us aware of a new need that, for the most part, only members of the psychotherapy profession were equipped to address.

For some of us, this increased - rather than decreased - our distress.  We already felt different from others. Now we had several more reasons:

  • We were the only people in our known world who thought about this stuff.  
  • We knew things about ourselves that couldn't be shared with our natural supports.  
  • We were rewarded in therapy for our self-focused curiosity, which kept us looking for more and more stuff that socially unsaleable.
  • Holding this information (keeping these social secrets) was stressful in and of itself. 
  • Licensed psychotherapists were, for the most part, the only people who could reliably meet our needs to share and process this socially unsale-able information.
This created a vicious cycle of isolation and dependency that kept many of us wedded to psychotherapy for years on end.

Conventional Society and Its Limits 

At the same time, psychotherapy is only one actor in a very large social drama.  To the contrary, almost none of us says, in our times of great need, I think I'd like to get involved with the mental health system.  For the most part, we'd vastly prefer to find someone in our known lives who we trusted and could help us through.  The mental health system is, at best, Plan B, C, D, or F.  We only use it when there's no one we trust to help us sort our lives  - and none of the other known options our working.  It's the relief of last resort when all other choices fail.

The sad fact of the matter, however, is that modern society does not equip us to offer each other the quality of caring and support we all need when times get rough.  That is not because ordinary people aren't wanted or can't be helpful in hard times.  Far from it!

Indeed, that was the premise of the 'When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home Project' spear-headed by psychologist Paula Caplan to help vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea is that ordinary people following a few simple instructions can learn how to effectively bear witness to a combat veteran's pain in ways that are extremely meaningful to both the veteran and the listener.  If we can learn to do this in a few minutes for war veterans with some of the most horrific and complex PTSD, then we can do it for each other with the garden variety traumas of civilian life.  It's a matter of willingness and intention, as Caplan points out time and again in her website and award-winning book, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans,

The real problem is that we're mostly not learning from our public relations how to treat each other when important stuff in life goes wrong.  Indeed, a lot of common social practices - judging, fault-finding, ridiculing, competing, comparing, advice-giving, rescuing, calling in experts, liability and PR management, pointing fingers... -  make things worse rather than better on a human level for all concerned.  As a result, as family members, friends and neighbors, we lack the necessary role models for offering the caring and understanding that everyone of us needs when the chips are down and the stakes are high.

This is not a small matter. The reality is that far too many of us are walking around in a silent despair. Some of us manage to keep plodding on despite our misery.  Others of us withdraw more and more into ourselves and our own worlds.  Still others kill the pain with addictions like drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, sex, internet, games, shopping, emotional intensity, interpersonal drama, survival sports, dangerous lifestyles, etc.  Some of us have acted out years of frustration, alienation and marginalization by venting our rage on vulnerable or unsuspecting others.  Even more of us haven’t gotten to the breaking point yet, but we suspect we have it in us if things continue as they are.

In short, a lot of us are suffering and we need some answers.  How do we talk about the stuff that really matters?  How do we find others who are learning to do this too?

That is a big reason this book is being written.  The hope is to put some ideas out there, get some of these conversations started and begin to compare notes.  There’s a lot that each of us has learned already.  Imagine what could happen if we could put together all the different things we know.

This guide attempts to make a start at that.  It reflects much of what I experienced in my own journey and what others have tried to share with me of theirs.  But there is so much more we can learn from each other and from each of us looking deeply into our own experience.

If that appeals to you, as it does to many of us, please keep reading.  And please also join our community we try to make sense, together, of what we have felt, seen, heard and personally experienced to be true on this Peerly Human journey,

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