Thinking Like the Enemy: Why Victims Blame Themselves

The Red Flag Campaign focuses on intervening against blaming victims.

If you’ve ever blamed yourself for something that was done to you, you’ll know what I’m talking about here.  If you’ve ever said, “Well, it was really my fault,” when someone else hurt you, then this is all going to sound very familiar.

In psychology, the tendency for victims to see themselves as deserving the harm done to them is often attributed to just-world thinking: the idea that the world is fair, evil is punished, and good is rewarded.  Therefore, if I was harmed, then I must have done something to deserve it.

I disagree.  I don’t think it’s about just-world thinking.

Now, this is only my opinion.  I’m not an expert and I haven’t read any rigorous studies on how victims come to view themselves negatively in light of the harm done to them.  I’m only going on what I remember of myself and how I’ve reacted to things.  So, I could just be a freak.  Or not be remembering right.  Or not be putting the pieces together correctly.  But I think these ideas are worth considering.

I have several hypotheses about how perpetrators and victims think and feel in relationship to one another during violent interpersonal attacks.  These hypotheses interlock.  One of them has to do with how trauma affects the brain.  (See The Scent of a Lion: Trauma and the Brain.)

If activity in our pre-frontal cortex is reduced during life and death situations (which it is), then I posit that our understanding of ourselves as separate and distinct individuals is also shut down to at least some extent.  I don’t know what structures in the brain are involved in constructing our self-image, and I would imagine it’s a rather complex precess, but it seems like the kind of thing the pre-frontal cortex would have to be involved in.

The Medial Pre-Frontal Cortex, Precuneus, and Anterior Insula are involved in our awareness of ourselves.

In addition, if we were traumatized as children, our self-image and inter-personal boundaries would not have been fully formed in the first place.  If you were very young at the time of a traumatic event, you may have had little or no sense of yourself as a separate person at all.  Many people understand this to mean that we view the world in narcissistic ways as infants and toddlers–that we see others are extensions of ourselves.  But that kind of thinking involves a sense of “me” in the first place, which I don’t think we necessarily have at that age.

What I think, based really only on what I remember, is that we see the world in a blurred way.  We have thoughts and feelings and we sense the thoughts and feelings of others, but we aren’t always entirely clear about who is having them or where they are coming from.  We may be clear that other people are distinct from us as actors and doers, but not as feelers and thinkers.  We don’t entirely understand that everyone has unique motives, beliefs, and emotions and these may or may not be the same as ours.  This doesn’t mean we assume they have ours, but that we don’t always know whose is whose, and we sometimes end up with other people’s feelings and views in our own heads without realizing that they aren’t ours.

Whether we were children at the time of traumatic events or adults, I think we revert to that kind of blurred thinking during traumatic events because of the suppression of the pre-frontal cortex.  Our ability to sense motives and emotions is not affected–that’s a more primitive brain function–but our ability to understand who is having what feeling is.

And this goes back to another previous post, about how perpetrators think (Why Evil?).  If someone who harms us sees us as being less than fully human in order to avoid their own empathic distress, we know at the time that they harm us that they see us that way.  Their views will be evident in their expression, body language, and tone of voice.

But we may not know that it is the perpetrator who sees us that way and not us.  The thought is out there, in a sense, floating around in the ether, without any particular owner or initiator.  Later, when our brains are up and fully running again, and we try to make sense of the event, we may assume that the view of ourselves which is now strongly associated with the event in our minds is our own.

In other words, we introject the perpetrator’s view of us. It is not so much that we take the perpetrator’s view of us into ourselves and make it our own, as we don’t know whose view it is in the first place.  It is simply there.  So we assume it must be ours.

And if we hold that assumption for many years, other thoughts form up around it.  Our view of ourselves as less than human, as undeserving and without value, becomes supported by other incidents in our lives.  We act based on that belief, which sometimes also causes others to see us in that way.  More evidence.  Before too long, the views our perpetrators held of us in order to commit violent acts against us are firmly entrenched in our own minds as who we are.

Source: Candida Abramons

So it isn’t really a surprise that all of the ways that perpetrators think in order to commit acts of harm against others are typically noted in the ways victims see themselves and come to understand violence done to them.  For example, victims often see themselves as deserving ill-treatment.  They feel guilty for transgressions that are imaginary or inflated or that they cannot name.  They see themselves as less than human, as bad, or evil, or apart from society, or as simply having no value.  And they often minimize or deny their pain, or fail to see it as being important.  Just like the perpetrator did.

The perpetrator’s thinking can be like a virus.  During a traumatic event, our immunity is down–our ability to keep our own minds separate and autonomous from others is diminished–and we catch it.  And that makes sense, doesn’t it?  Violence is always about violation.  When we lose our ability–even temporarily–to see ourselves as separate from someone who harming us, it is a violation of the mind and not just of the body.

Part of the healing from trauma involves rebuilding those shattered boundaries, and reconstructing our sense of being a separate person–putting what is the perpetrator’s outside of us, and reclaiming what is ours.

Also of interest:

Candida Abramson.  (2011, December 20).  Under My Thumb–Controlling Spouses, Part VI: The (Self) Blame Game.  https://candidaabrahamson.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/under-my-thumb-controlling-spouses-part-vi-the-self-blame-game/

Lazarev, Sergei.  (2011, September 10).  The Alchemy of the Self.  http://lazarev.org/ru/interesting/full_news/alhimiya_samoosoznaniya/

The Red Flag Campaign.  http://www.theredflagcampaign.org/index.php/downloads/

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Magic Numbers

I’ve been getting acquainted with my own mind recently.  By “recently” I really mean the last 2 or 3 years.  My mind is a complicated place.

Numbers live there, I’ve found.  I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising to me.  I spend my days with numbers.  If I didn’t like them, I would do something else for a living.

Source: PSD Graphics

But more of them live a lot more loudly in my head than I had ever expected.  To the point where I’m not sure if I shouldn’t be a little frightened.  Or maybe look for some kind of specialist in the field to help me with my number problem.  Really.

I don’t like prime numbers, for example.  Two is okay.  That’s an even number, and two is so fun to divide by.  You can just keep dividing everything by two and your whole word gets sorted into nice, neat stacks.  Thirteen is also okay.  Just because.  Five is really the best number–made up of the sum of an even and an odd number.  It stacks in interesting ways.  Try it.  You can make flowers out of fives.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

But I don’t like 37,  Forty-three is also not okay, nor is 23 or 41.  A few days ago, I checked my views on here shortly before bedtime.  Thirty-seven views.  The temptation to stay up just a little while longer until I had 38 was nearly overwhelming.  I like 38 a lot better.  It is divisible by 19 and 2.  Being divisible by 2 just makes it a better number.  Neater.  More orderly.  And 19 is an interesting number, even if it is prime, because it is so close to being 20.  So two times 19 is two less than 20.  Four times 19 is 4 less than 80.  Nineteen has possiblities.

In truth, I prefer numbers with factors.  The more factors the better.  Sixty is one of my favorite numbers because it has so many of them.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 30, and 60.  That’s a lot of factors for a number that isn’t so large.  Of the 1-digit numbers, 60 is divisible by all of the first six.  Cool.

And I have other odd little number quirks–it’s these that first put me onto my little number obsession.  I  guess it was about time I noticed this.  Much like someone so superstitious he won’t leave the house if the dog sneezes, I prefer not to start things at times that involve “bad” numbers.  “Good” numbers are divisible by five when it comes to time.  The best numbers are increments of an hour.  If I could start all activities on the hour–from brushing my teeth to going to bed–I’d be a much happier person.

If I weren’t so used to it, it would drive me nuts that classes start at, say 11:07 or end at 1:53.  Bad times.

Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology

Anyway, my fixation with “good” numbers and “bad” numbers causes problems for me, because inevitably that “magic time” I’ve settled on passes while I’m engrossed in something else.  It’s hard to be aware of the passing of time every second, and yet if you want to take out the trash at exactly 1:55, you have to.  And I can’t.  So, I find myself choosing an endless number of magic times as they all pass by.

Other people would just procrastinate.  And that’s what I thought I was dealing with.  Except I really am not trying to delay the task.  I’m just trying to choose an “auspicious” time.

Is this what you call obsession?  Or compulsion?  Or something else?  Is it mere superstition or extreme anxiety?

I don’t know if I have overwhelming panic attacks if I ignore my magic numbers because I’ve never tried it.  I suppose that’s the next step.  So, maybe I’ll try paying my bills today at the ugliest time I can think of–5:37.  Or maybe the real test is doing something whenever the last thing is finished.  And not at any certain time…

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Addendum: So I said I would let you know how it went.  I came down with the flu and didn’t much feel like paying bills, but I did decide to go take a nap at 4:37–a very ugly time and one quite likely to inspire unease in me.  I didn’t have an anxiety attack.  It was fine.  Except I immediately stuck my foot in a cold bowl of broth I’d set down on the floor by my chair and forgotten all about.  So maybe there’s something to this thing with good times and bad times.

Why Evil? How Perpetrators Think

I wanted to return to this question of evil that I picked up in some of my earlier posts.  (Towards a Unified Theory of Evil, Madness in our Midst.)

I agree with Hannah Arendt—harming others is against our basic natures.  Otherwise, murder would be a lot more common than it is and no one would have turned my phone in after I left it on the bus two weeks ago.  Temptation, for most of us, is a small voice.  The big voice is to do right.

Consequently, we don’t very often find ourselves wiping out whole communities, murdering our own children, or torturing prisoners.  When evil occurs, witnesses are usually shocked and appalled—as if they’ve seen something unusual.  Because it is unusual.

Christopher Allen Carlson, convicted of abusing his 3 young grandsons during a 27 mile hike through the Grand Canyon without food or water, claimed he was “toughening them up.” Source: Indianapolis State Police/AP Photos.

According to Ervin Staub, evil on that scale isn’t commonplace because harming others hurts us.  Like other human experiences, the pain of the victim is somewhat contagious; we feel empathic distress when we see the intense suffering of others. If we aren’t powerful enough or brave enough to help, we feel guilty on top of that.  So, harming others is painful and unpleasant for us, and that makes causing harm difficult.  There are inhibiting factors that first need to be overcome.

Namely, we need to either diminish our empathic distress or guilt or both.  What I’ve noticed throughout my life is that the strategies people use in order to accomplish these two aims are remarkably similar to one another—even in very dissimilar situations and often regardless of the scale of the harm being done.  People justify a single incident of assault in ways strikingly similar to the ways nations justify genocide.  We suppress our capacities for empathy and for discerning between good and evil in only a small number of ways.

Female relatives of 12-year-old schoolboy Ayoub Asalya, grieve during his funeral in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip
Picture: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images. Israel nearly justifies air strikes on Palestinian targets (which generally strike civilians) as retaliation for Palestinian aggression.

Blaming the victim is one such strategy: Conscience usually allows for punishment of an individual who has transgressed the rules of society.  Many perpetrators exaggerate or fabricate the transgressions of their victims, or construct rules known only to themselves so that they believe that the victim has broken them.

In the mind of perpetrators, their crimes then become not crimes, but justice.  Lack of conscience can masquerade as a distorted conscience.  There are still rules.  Just the wrong ones.

Society also allows us to harm those we don’t consider to be human.  It is okay for me to chop up a piece of wood to make a table.  It is not acceptable for me to chop up a human being and construct a table that way.  Tbe closer I come to imagining a human being as a piece of wood, the more easily I can evade my conscience in order to harm that person.

Animals seem to lie along a continuum.  Worms, for example, are okay to jam live onto fishing hooks and then submerge completely in water.  I doubt very much that most of us would be comfortable doing that to a gorilla.  Regardless, exploitation of animals for valuable products is usually seen as acceptable by most people; it is not universally considered wrong to slaughter and eat animals as long is it is done relatively humanely.  However, torturing them is.

Avram and Emanuel Rosenthal wearing Stars of David in the Kovno ghetto. Labeling began the process of dehumanizing Jews during the Third Reich. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Thinking of a person as an animal usually starts that process towards the slippery slope of harm.  And many perpetrators do this, mentally placing victims outside of the realm of what they consider to be human.  The Nazis most famously and tragically utilized this method during the Holocaust.  Racial slurs continue to rely on this strategy.

These are mainly examples of failures of conscience, although these distorted ways of thinking allow us to feel less empathy for victims as well.  However, we can also diminish the impact of empathy on ourselves by refusing to see or acknowledge the harm to the victim.

Perpetrators often do this, refusing to see the harm they are causing even when it is clearly visible to see.  So, a rape victim doesn’t mean it when she says no.  The abused child is crying to be manipulative when he is in real emotional and mental pain.  The beaten spouse is being dramatic and overly emotional.  None of them are in real pain.  Except they are.

I find failures of empathy more disturbing than failures of conscience, even though they are linked and lead to the same ends.  Perhaps empathy is closer to the heart of what it means to be human in my mind–or even just what it means to be alive and a part of the world.  Given the right techniques, it isn’t that hard to warp a person’s conscience into supporting a set of rules that are deeply inhuman.  But it takes only the smallest fragment of a conscience to understand that inflicting suffering is wrong.  Even my cat doesn’t hurt me when she bites.

References:

Arendt, H. (1994). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil.  New York: Penguin.

Burton, Connor.  (2012, June 14).  ABC News.  Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/US/grandpa-christopher-carlson-27-months-jail-grand-canyon/story?id=16570399#.UGEfyI2PUqg

Staub, E.  (1992).  The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Telegraph. (2012, September 25.)  Israel Air Strikes and Gaza and Palestinian Rocket Strikes. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/9138976/Israeli-air-strikes-on-Gaza-and-Palestinian-rocket-attacks.html?frame=2165818

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  http://www.ushmm.org/holocaust/

Why This Kolaveri Di?

If you aren’t familiar with the mish-mash, “Tanglish” song phenomenon “Why This Kolaveri Di?” then I have bad news for you.

You are behind the curve.

Here is your chance to catch up, now before it’s too late.

More than any other hit, this song has been remixed, redone, parodied and covered around the globe.  It has been Punjabified…

Westernized (R&B style)…

Publicly performed by flash mobs from Sidney to Malaysia to the Netherlands…

And satirized cleverly and not-so-cleverly by performers around the globe.

Granted, many of those involved in re-working this song are members of the South Asian diaspora, or living within well-established channels of cultural exchange between India and other parts of the world (including Afghanistan and the Middle East).  However, when I see blond Dutch boys dancing to the song in public, it makes me think something is up.

What is it about a heartbroken Tamil boy who can speak neither Hindi nor English properly that has so gotten to us?  Is it that, without even knowing what a “soup boy” is, we can instinctively relate to failed love?  Or does the song just have a great melody that is flexible enough it can be mixed with anything and still work, from the syncopated rhythms of bhangra to a standard Western rock beat?

Maybe a little of both.  Art does not need to be profound or new to move us.  The simple, raw expression of our everyday realities–what it means to us to be alive and human–is what many of us find most inspiring.  It is truth and not cleverness or intellectual gymnastics that speaks the loudest and has the widest grasp.

But it also helps if your song has a catchy tune.

I’ll leave you with Suliman Khan’s version in Dari (Afghan Persian) and Pashto.

What do you think?  What makes music great?

Kandahar, Artificial Legs, and the Science of Hope

For me, “normal” is achieved only through colossal effort.  I think that’s true for a lot of people.  For some of us, life–just getting through the day–is terribly, terribly difficult.

A couple of things give me hope.

This is one of them.

In Kandahar, a 2001 film by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a young woman journeys through the Afghan desert in order to save her sister, who has become so overcome with despair that she has decided to commit suicide at the time of an upcoming solar eclipse.

Nafas, the main character, periodically speaks into a tape she is preparing to give to her sister in order to provide her with hope and a reason to live.  One of the statements she makes into it is this:

I have come to believe that if someone who has lost a leg does not become a champion runner, it is their own fault.

A still from the film Kandahar. Source: Cinema: Five Great Iranian Films.

What I think she means is that, having witnessed individuals overcome incredible hurdles and hardships, she has become convinced that almost anything is possible for human beings to achieve.  If we don’t, it’s because we haven’t tried hard enough.

She may be literally correct.  In an episode of Brain Fitness: Frontiers from WGBH, a scientist relates the story of a man living in Mexico who is completely paralyzed by a stroke, but over time is able to relearn how to walk.  When the man passes away, an autopsy reveals that the portion of his brain normally responsible for motor control was completely destroyed and never recovered from the damage of the stroke.  The task of walking was “learned” by a different part of his brain.

Source: Brain Health and Puzzles

Not long ago, a blogger commented on one of my posts that I could not just “unlearn” trauma.  But “unlearning” is really closing down one neural pathway in favor of a new one.  I can.

My brain, like everyone’s, is plastic and can be reshaped by the experiences I give it.  It’s just a matter of giving it the right experiences.

I am a champion runner.

References:

Brain Health and Puzzles.  (2007).  Brain Plasticity: Brain Architecture.  Retrieved from: http://www.brainhealthandpuzzles.com/brain_plasticity.html

Brain Plasticity: What is It?  Learning and Memory.  http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/plast.html

Castro, J.  (2011, February 22).  Understanding the Brain’s “Brake Pedal” in Neural Plasticity.  Scientific American.  Retrieved from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=understanding-the-brains

Naficy, Hamid.  (2012, July 12).  Cinema: Five Great Films.  PBS: Frontline.  Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2012/07/cinema-five-great-iranian-films.html

Sherin, J. and C. Nemeroff.  (2011, September).  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Neurobiological Impact of Psychological Trauma.  Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience.  Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3182008/

The Cat Carrier and Other Fear Structures

A photo of 2×2 ministers in Lakewood, California at a “special meeting” when I was 12. I have personally met and remember everyone in this photo. Source: VotisAlive.com

One of the consequences of having grown up in a religious cult is that I often find it very difficult to not think in the terms an authority figure suggests, even if I know that way of thinking to be incorrect or inappropriate for the situation.

What I’m getting at is I keep thinking of the trauma I’ve experienced in terms of what I “think” about it.  I identify a feeling–say, guilt–then I try to locate the thought that might have been given rise to the feeling.  For example, I recognize I feel guilty and then speculate that I must have felt guilty because I believe the abuse was my fault.  And I do this, unconsciously, even when I know better, because I’ve seen enough therapists who have suggested that that is how it works and what you should do to heal.

It isn’t.  I wasn’t, most likely, thinking anything when I was traumatized.  In some situations, I was too little to be thinking very much, and in all cases I was too frightened.  If I did think, the thoughts came later and are anciliary to other aspects of the trauma.  Thoughts aren’t really part of the core trauma or the core problem.  They aren’t causing my symptoms.

Photo credit: Brookhollow Lane

The core trauma, and what is causing my symptoms, involves overwhelming, intense sensory information, including unmanageable internal emotional states.

So, I do recognize guilt as part of the experience of my mother hitting me over the head with a chair, but I know I wasn’t thinking anything.  I didn’t think I made mommy hit me.  I didn’t think I’m a bad kid–although I do think that now.  I merely reacted to perceptual information: Mommy is mad at me.  And I reacted by feeling guilty.  No intervening cognition or meaning making.  Just an animal emotional reaction.

In other words, the link between perception and emotion is shorter than we assume it is during stressful times.  We assume it works the way it usually works: perception-cognition-emotion.  But trauma can shorten the link to perception-emotion.  Cognition is usually left out.

If we try to insert cognition into the experience, we distort it and actually move further away from understanding what happened and how we perceived it at the time that the trauma occurred.

The cognitions we have about traumatic events all come later, after the trauma has ended and it is safe enough to relax a little and turn our brains back on.  Our cognitions about traumatic events do affect us, but less immediately than the shorter link of perception-emotion.

The cats. Not at all scared.

Although trauma largely affects the limbic system, which is extremely primitive, and evolutionarily descended from before our break from reptiles, I suspect there are also mammalian brain structures at work as well (as distinct from human structures, which are the most evolutionarily advanced and the most recent).

I’ll give an example.  I took both of my cats to the vet in August for an annual exam.  Violet, who is 16 and has had kidney failure for the last two years, underwent a number of blood tests, an x-ray of her abdomen, and a urine sample (and since cats won’t pee into a cup, you can imagine that as another invasive and frightening procedure.)

The carrier I took them to the vet in is one of those black, mesh-lined duffel bags for animals.  It zips.  The next day, when I took my backpack, which also zips and is dark-colored, into the bedroom to pack something or other in it before going out, Violet quietly slunk under the bed and hid.

I doubt very much she thought anything in particular about my backpack.  Cats do have a frontal lobe, but not a pre-frontal cortex.  I am not sure how much a cat’s frontal lobe can think in a conscious way, but probably not very much.

Her link between perception and action was most likely very short: perception-emotion-action.  She saw the bag and heard the rattling zipper, felt uneasy, and slunk under the bed.  No cognition.

Ventral view of the cat brain. Source: David Frankhauser. Removal and Study of the Cat Brain.

I imagine my traumatic experiences have been a lot like that: perception-emotion-action.  There aren’t many cognitions directly linked to the experience.  The thoughts I have now are telegraphic memories of what I saw or heard–and often of what someone else said.  They are not real thoughts.

It makes me wonder if we are missing something about how trauma is processed, especially in how trauma affects very young children–and the most damaging traumatic experiences usually do occur very early for children who grow up in abusive homes.

Although the mind does need to construct meaning from events, especially very emotionally charged events, our beliefs form only a small portion of how the event is processed and is not what gives rise to the symptoms of traumatic stress.

The symptoms are cause by the creation of fear structures during the traumatic event (very strong neural pathways formed between perception and fear) as well as by the chaotic and disorganized nature of the memory within the amygdala.

A fear structure. Source: Neuner, F. et al.

Our conscious minds know the trauma occurred, but we are unable to fully access it, usually because remembering prompts such an intense emotional state that construction of a narrative memory is repeatedly interrupted by the reactivation of the limbic system.

In other words, we do sometimes construct maladaptive beliefs around traumatic symptoms and these beliefs can negatively affect our lives, but they aren’t what lead to panic attacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, hypervigilance, or IBS.  On a triage scale, beliefs rank rather lower down.  It is the memory itself that is causing us the greatest distress and needs the most immediate attention.

So as we work with the memory of traumatic events to integrate them into our conscious minds, it may help to recognize that our emotional reactions are usually direct responses to perception and cognitions may not be present at all.  There is no need to go looking for things that aren’t there.  Perception and sensation, both bodily and emotional, are what are most important.

References:

Brookhollow Lane.  (2011, January 18).  Kitchen Chair Covers.  Retrieved from: http://brookhollowlane.blogspot.com/2011/01/kichen-chair-covers.html

Frankhauser, D.  (2011).  Removal and Study of the Cat Brain. Retreived from: http://biology.clc.uc.edu/fankhauser/Labs/Anatomy_&_Physiology/A&P202/Brain_Dissection/CAT_BRAIN.htm

Marcus, G.  (2008).  Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Neuner, F. et al. (2008, July). Narrative Exposure Therapy for the Treatment of Traumatized Children and Adolescents (KidNET),  Neurocognitive Theory to Field Intervention. Child and Adolescent Psychiatrict Clinics of North America.

Via.  http://www.votisalive.com

The Thought of Death in the Morning Goes Well with Tea

Black tea. Source: http://www.elite-tea.com/page/2/

I wake up most mornings thinking I should kill myself.  I get up, put tea on, use the loo, feed the cat, and then start thinking I should die.

This has been going on for years.  It doesn’t happen every day.  Just most days.

I’m not suicidal.

It took me a long time to realize that, and these kinds of thoughts used to scare the pants off me.  Especially in the days when I really was depressed, because suicidality and depression go together and I really didn’t want to wake up dead one morning.  Well, so to speak.

In reality, not all suicide is about despair.  Some suicidal gestures are about rage or impulsivity or both.  I ought to know.  I’ve seen a lot of them.  Suicidal gestures, I mean.

So, the rest of the story from the juice/chair incident I wrote about in Scent of a Lion: Trauma and the Brain is that I woke up in a pool of blood on the floor in the kitchen and went looking rather dazedly for my mother.  I found her in the bathtub with her wrists slit.  The water was pink and tasted salty.  I am not entirely sure this really happened, but I am mostly sure.  Sure enough.  The fact that I tasted the water is oddly convincing for me.  Perhaps mainly because it’s such a strange thing to do, and so exactly what I would do, and so intensely, vividly there.

I am sharing this with you, my reader, not to shock or horrify you.  I don’t want pity for what a rough start I had in life.  I am telling you because I am not so very different from other people, and if I found my mother semi-conscious after the climax of a raging fit, you might have also.  Or someone you know might have.  Maybe not a mother, but maybe a father, or a sibling, or a friend.  And you–or the person you know–might be very confused about that.

Our bathtub did not look anything this elegant. Source: http://www.orrplumbing.com/bathtub-plumbing-repair/how-to-plumb-a-new-bath-tub-bath-tub-plumbing-repair/

Losing a loved one to suicide is always deeply distressing.  It’s a loss, as much as any loss is, but it also has that added element of being almost completely incomprehensible.  Why would you choose to die?  Was life really so awful?  Was there something I should have done?  Why didn’t I see it?  It’s doubly puzzling when even what we are told about suicide doesn’t quite fit.  We can try to make it fit, but it doesn’t.

People who engage in enraged acts of self-harm are always in a great deal of pain, or at least communicate that they are.  That part fits.

But angry suicides blame other people for the distress they are in.  Their gestures are often public, as if to say, “Look what you’re doing to me!”  Sometimes, they literally say it.  I know my mother said it to me.

Mainly, what doesn’t fit is that raging suicides are raging.  They are really and truly angry, even if they may also be saying how much pain they are feeling–which does make a certain degree of sense.  After all, we sometimes do lash out when we are hurting.  Just maybe not so much.

Essentially, the raging suicidal gesture is a way to hurt other people by hurting someone important to the people you are trying to hurt–namely, yourself.  And that’s very different from simply giving up on life, or even trying to communicate in the only way you know how that you are hurting.  And, the thing is, it works.

It does hurt.  I know it hurt me.

The reason I wake up in the morning thinking I should die is that I once woke up in the morning and my mother told me she wished I were dead.  And then she nearly killed me, and after that she nearly killed herself.

I still can’t make sense of it, and it still hurts.