And on Guilt

Despair and guilt both have a particular meaning for me. Their meanings are fairly similar. So, for a second uplifting reading, you can check out On the Nature of Despair. They go together.

In the the course of the harm that was done to me, I was forced to harm others. In one particular case, a younger child. In another, a kitten. There were most likely others, but those are the ones that return to me as events that require understanding.

I wasn’t responsible for those acts, and yet I feel I am. I am unable to let go of feeling guilty about them.

It’s tempting, to focus on my distorted sense of responsibility and power, but I suspect those are distractions. Because, after a closer look, what I start to think is that I don’t feel I made the wrong choice within the context of the limited choices I had.

In both situations, I was very young–between 4 and 6. It’s possible I didn’t have the capacity to make choices. And yet I recall myself as someone making choices, and someone keenly aware of the consequences of my actions.

In the case of the child–let’s call him Billy–it seems to me I knew that harming him would expand for him the range of possible perpetrators, making everyone a possible source of fear in his life. If even a four-year-old will abuse you, then who is safe? And that’s a terrible thing.

But I also recall myself as someone who knew what would happen if I refused, and a part of that would be forcing Billy to harm me instead. And I saw myself as more capable of managing that horror better than Billy would be able to. It’s a terrible thing to begin to identify with perpetrators of terrible acts and to come to feel that you are as evil as they are.

In the case of the kitten, I knew that my father would continue to torture it and leave it for dead. Better that I simply kill it.

I could, I think, forgive myself if I was simply unable to do anything other than what I did. Children often simply do what they are told, regardless of how terrible the deed. But I feel that I chose, and that I chose the better of the horrific choices available to me. I don’t regret them. I am deeply saddened by them, but I don’t regret it.

Guilt merely reminds me that what I did was wrong. It reminds me that I still knew right from wrong, even if I never had the power to do what was right. Guilt isn’t my enemy, but a friend.


On the Nature of Despair

It seems to me we repeatedly return to feeling states, even when they are extremely uncomfortable for us, until we understand what those feelings mean to us. The more complex the meanings they have, the longer this process can take. It can take a long time, as well, when the feelings are too intense to tolerate long enough to explore its meaning fully.

One reason why Dialectical Behavior Therapy can be so helpful, especially for borderlines who have such intense feelings and so much difficulty tolerating them, is just that–because “distress tolerance” is a part of that package. And when we can successfully manage our difficult emotions, we can better construct meanings about our world that accurately incorporate our feelings.

I have been thinking about the meaning of my sense of despair, because that is one feeling state I continue to return to. It stems from an understanding of the world as a place that is unredeemably evil, full of horrors that cannot and should not be comprehended. And this isn’t to say that isn’t also full of goodness and wonder, but simply to say they co-exist and I find the evil difficult to live with.

My horror at the evil I have witnessed and been the victim of has tremendous meaning for me, because that is what sets me apart from the perpetrators. They were unmoved by the distress they were causing their victims and untroubled by the wrongness of their own actions.

Horror may make the world a difficult place for me to live in, but it make it easier to live with myself. This is important to me because I was forced to harm others in the course of my own abuse, so knowing where I fall in terms of good and evil and right and wrong is crucial to accepting myself. What distinguishes me from them is only partly our actions. It is much more how we feel about those actions.

The perpetrators did not feel any responsibility for the distress of their victims, nor did they experience any guilt. In contrast, my sense of guilt at having harmed others and having been complicit in the harm done to myself arises from what fundamentally separates me from them: a concern for the anguish of others and for my own anguish, an ability and willingness to take responsibility for my own actions and the outcomes of those actions, and an attendance to right and wrong.

To put it succinctly, it is my capacity for horror and for guilt that makes me someone that has value and worth in my own mind. While I may be horrified at the world, I do not have to be horrified at myself.

And although, in a real sense, I am not responsible for the actions I took that harmed others or myself, it is the fact that I can take responsibility that proves to me I am not one of them. I am muddled about power and causality, but I am not muddled about right and wrong, nor am I muddled about what it means to care.

Guest Blogger

I’ve had my first guest-blogging experience. I just wanted to share that.

Actually, it was really just a crazy-long comment on Dr. Shirah Vollmer’s blog and I guess she liked it.

So here’s a link. It’s about how a client might think about a therapist caring and really about people caring in general.

Do Therapist’s Really Care?

Murder on a Sunday Afternoon

Jesus Jumping Jehosephat!

Just a quick news flash: Both of my natural parents were (perhaps are) homicidal maniacs.

Kay-kay. I knew that, but I’m getting it here at a whole new level.

Let me back up. So I was having a pretty good day. Got a little writing done, talked to the gf. Felt sort of, you now, real in this very pleasant way you might call not dissociated. It was fun.

I went for a walk. The clouds were awesome, the light was way cool, and generally it was a pretty nice experience. Then a guy walked by in a flashing looking shirt. You know, the kind of shirt that says “pimp” or at least “I’d like to be a pimp.” And he said hi to me, which is not completely uncommon here on the busy streets of Los Angeles, but is not so very normal either.

And I crashed. Shut down. Felt like I didn’t know who or what I was.

I dissociated. Rapidly. It was the shirt. And the hi. And the codes for sex trafficking and sociopathy that I am utterly attuned to.

So then I had to do some thinking. You know, just to start feeling normal again. And also because the mojo of feeling, you know, not dissociated, was so way super-hot, freaky fantastic that I wanted it again.  The way someone else might want a good hit of heroin.

And I’ll tell you the thinking brought me into a dark place. That kind of thinking often does. You can’t go around trauma. You go through it. Or you don’t go anywhere at all.

The place it took me to is one of a profound self-hatred and an intense desire to self-distruct. It made me think about taking up a blunt object to see how much force I could hit my own head with it before I lost consciousness. It made me think about carving up my skin.

I was glad, in that dark place, that I am not 13 years old anymore. That I can live with those thoughts in my head and simply think them, feel bad, and do nothing. Just be. Half of life is controlling impulsivity.

But that aside, it wasn’t any fun. It is not something I recommend as a way to spend your Sunday afternoon. And what I got from it is that my parents were (and probably are) homicidal maniacs who wanted me dead.

They were different kinds of killers, but killers nonetheless. My mother, impulsive and angry–and maybe at times psychotic. My dad the slow-burn type. The torturer. And maybe he wasn’t interested in killing me so much as it didn’t necessarily matter to him one way or the other if I died in the process of what he was doing. If he kept me alive, it was only so he could go on hurting me.

No wonder I’m so obsessed with murderers.

* I feel I should also mention here that my cat has slept on my shoulder through the writing of this entire blog entry. And they say cats don’t care.

We Have Found Dr. Livingstone, But We Don’t Know What to Do

Photo credit: Laurent/Meeus/BSIP/Science Source. Photo Researchers, Inc
Photo credit: Laurent/Meeus/BSIP/Science Source. Photo Researchers, Inc

As helpful and life-saving as contemporary psychology and psychodynamic therapy have been to me, I have a few complaints against them. At times certain common attitudes and practices have actively disrupted and delayed my healing. And I don’t mean the occasional bumbling or even toxic therapist.  I mean what seem to be wide-spread assumptions and tendencies within the field.

To contrast, let me start by explaining what my relationship with other medical professionals looks like. When I go to the doctor or even take my cat to the vet, I am told clearly and plainly what the possible diagnoses might be, what other tests are available that could clarify the situation, what the risks and benefits of various treatment options are, and I’m left in the end to choose for myself what medical treatment plan to pursue.

If my doctor feels herself to be out of her depth, she provides a referral to a specialist. I am also free to check with other doctors for their opinions on the matter.

In other words, the process is transparent and places me in the role as a patient as responsible for my own health-care decisions. The basic assumption about the two of us–the doctor and the patient–is that the doctor is an expert in diagnosis and treatment options, while I am an expert in knowing what risks I am willing to tolerate and how much time and money I want to sink into fixing the problem. Our expertise is complementary.

It didn’t used to be like that. It used to be that you went to the doctor, and they told you what to do, and you did it more or less without question. We have changed as a society, and placing all responsibility on the doctor to know and decide what is best for the patient is no longer acceptable or practicable.

Psychotherapy, on the other, is in many ways the opposite. A clear diagnosis is rarely provided unless your condition involves a clear biological component–like bipolar disorder or depression. A treatment plan is not laid out, nor are the possible benefits or risks discussed. The patient is not free to seek out a second opinion.

In some respects, psychology remains mired in what I can only describe as colonial attitudes, in which the patient is expected to trust the good doctor implicitly to heal her.

To some extent, psychotherapy is just less clear-cut than medical science and sometimes a proper diagnosis is not known at the outset, nor exactly what treatment plan needs to be followed, but I don’t think that’s the only explanation for it. I blame the lingering influence of Freud–who had very patronizing, authority-centered attitudes toward his work.

“I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador–an adventurer, if you want it translated–with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.” (Sigmund Freud, letter to Wilhelm Fliess, Feb. 1, 1900).

Although clients enter the psychotherapist’s office because they want to get better, they are expected to resist treatment. If we seek a second opinion, it is seen not as being a responsible patient, but as lack of trust for authority. Therapists still assume they need to break through our defenses.  Psychotherapy, to some extent, pathologizes the normal adult desire to be independent, autonomous, and responsible for one’s own life and actions.

My medical doctor knows that if I come in because my symptoms are bothering me, I will most likely choose an effective treatment plan and stick to it, because I want change. Most therapists assume that, despite the trouble my symptoms are giving, I will reject a diagnosis and not stick to a treatment regimen.  So the question of diagnosis is sidestepped, and the treatment plan is never overtly articulated.

This is nonsense. There are some patients who really do want a quick fix, and will quit therapy if they know how difficult it’s likely to be. But why not just tell them? A client who does not want to suffer through treatment should be free do that, in the same way that I chose not to pursue treatment of my geriatric cat’s fast-growing cancer a few months back. Why try to sneak in guerrilla therapy a client does not want and is only submitting to due to a lack of awareness?

Worse, if I really do want change, and am willing to tolerate the risks associated with it, why allow me to struggle with disappointment and frustration because I did not know how great they would be? Especially if I would embrace them if I knew they were coming?

I can tell you if I had known the degree of dissociation and trauma I needed to deal with from the outset of my 15 year search for healing, I would have articulated disbelief and resistance to it. But a core part of me would have been vastly relieved to know what the real problem was and would have been able to embark in a productive line of psychological work much earlier in the process, instead of spinning my wheels for 10 years wondering what the real problem was. If I had known what I was doing  and why, I would have been able to do it better much earlier.

In fact, it was really only when I changed my own attitude towards healing that I began to see real change: it was only after I saw myself as solely responsible for developing my own course of treatment that I began to see significant gains. When I relied on a process that was not only inadequate and ineffective, but also kept me dependent and out of control of my own psychological work, my progress was very slight. Not only was I less able to do the work, but I was less invested in it. I did not know what it was, so I could not do it as well. I did not know the purpose of it, so I was less willing to spend time or energy on it. And it was in many respects the wrong course of treatment, but I did not know to keep looking until I found the right one.

In schools, we have also shifted our attitudes about our students. Although state and national standards dictate curriculum, we talk more and more about ownership, about letting students know clearly where they are, and giving them choices about what steps to take next to improve their learning. And they are children.

So why does psychology remain so untrusting, so patronizing, and so colonial in its attitude toward patients? Why does it remain mired in the era of Dr. Livingstone, when conquered peoples were seen as savages in need of re-educating and civilizing at the hands of all-knowing authority figures? Why has it been unable to move forward in terms of how responsibility for decision-making should be distributed?

The Strong Silent Type

When I was 13, my best friend told me, “You put people in cages and then watch them to see how they’ll act.”

I’ve never forgotten that.

Photo credit: ABC News.
Photo credit: ABC News.

She was pretty indignant about it, and I was pretty horrified. Not because she was telling me I had an intense interest in human behavior. That’s not so uncommon, and certainly not a moral failing. But she seemed to imply I lacked any emotional attachment to those around me–most particularly her.  Because I think what she really meant is that she felt I was putting her in a cage and watching how she would react.

I think she meant you could be a serial killer if that interested you, you could be a suicide bomber, you could be an interrogator at Gitmo.  You could do anything, because you don’t feel about others the way you should.  You have too much objectivity, too little attachment.

I’ve never asked her if that’s what she really meant, so maybe I’m wrong about that.  But it is what resonates with me, as what I found frightening about myself at that time, and what still frightens me.

And it makes me realize something about how I grew up and how that affected me. Because I am not, in fact, an emotionless wasteland of a person. I am not detached or unattached to others. I care immensely about the world and the people in it.  I care about the people close to me, and even about people who aren’t that close.

My father, who orchestrated the torture chamber of my childhood, tried to raise me to be like him–a sociopath. Cold, calculated, and without empathy or conscience.

I’m lucky.

I’ll tell you something else. As a child being trafficked for sex, one of the first things you learn is everyone wants you to be someone else. There are the johns who want a victim, and those who want the seductress, and those who want an innocent. Everyone wants someone and no one wants you.

And if you want to survive, if you don’t want to be beaten or tortured or killed because you have no market value, then you figure out pretty fast is how to size up who wants what and how to be it to their satisfaction.

And what my dad wanted was a cold, emotionless psychopath who wasn’t afraid of anything, didn’t need anything, didn’t want anything, and was never hurt.

A lot of abused kids put on tough acts to hide their vulnerabilities and the pain that seems to go with it. My father demanded I be one.

That’s who my friend was talking about. I’m lucky my father created a persona and not a personality.

The Problem with Heroes

One of several ongoing debates in education these days is how to evaluate teachers. I have some thoughts on that too, but it also strikes that we must be so profoundly concerning to us because we believe the reason that our education system is in trouble is that we have too many ineffective teachers in the classroom.

That’s true. It is especially true in low-performing schools. But I differ with the public imagination of what the majority of ineffective teachers look like.

I suspect a widely held image of an ineffective teacher is of a veteran teacher who is burned out, lazy, irritable, and boring. That’s certainly the teacher we probably hated the most in school, and maybe we all had one.

I have taught alongside a few of these myself, but not many. Perhaps every school has one. But it isn’t one teacher out of 50 or more that is causing an achievement gap or giving us lower scores on international tests than we feel we should have as a powerful nation.

It’s a very different type of ineffective teacher that I think is doing the most damage to our education system: new teachers. There are far more of them, and a disproportionate number of them in struggling schools—even in these difficult economic times, when teachers are being laid off.

As a nation, we love new teachers. They most often work extremely hard, care a lot about students, and bring tremendous passion to their work. They are, in fact, our cinema heroes. But we know from research that teachers like the star featured in inspirational movies like Freedom Writers are measurably less effective than their more experienced peers.

This is not because they are lazy, or even because they are unprepared. But teaching is a highly complex job that requires integrating and seamlessly applying a variety of skills. And like any other complex job, it takes time to learn how to do it well.

I know this from personal experience—I was a new teacher once as well. And I can tell you that, despite how hard as I worked, how much I knew, and how frequently I was observed and given feedback on my teaching during that first year, I was not nearly as effective as I am now. It took me time to learn my job. It takes everyone time.

What strikes me about this in particular is that there really is no need for most new teachers to enter the field at all. Our population is not expanding so rapidly that there are just more children to teach. Teachers are retiring at a steady rate, but not in droves.  New teachers are entering the field most often to replace colleagues who have left the field just because they didn’t want to keep doing it.

Why?  Because teaching is thankless. Most people decide to become teachers because they want to help. They want to make a difference in the world, and by and large, they do.

But the work-load is absurdly unmanageable, there are few opportunities to expand our knowledge-base and certainly no time in which to do it, and we are usually led by critical, unhelpful principals who are convinced we are not doing enough but have few ideas (or bad ideas) about what it is.

We are left with a nagging feeling of inadequacy and a sense that to really do things well, we should be doing something else, something more, something better. But there are only so many hours in a day, and we have only so many seconds to really give to each child, and we end up taking shortcuts we’d rather not take just to survive.

It’s not really a surprise that so many teachers leave the field for positions in which they can come home at the end of the day with a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment and a sense that they have done well.

Teaching most often involves endless compromises between reality—“the facts on the ground”—and best practices. It is, quite frankly, utterly discouraging.

Teachers leave the field for a number of reasons. One of them is that what we all want most in the world is to do our jobs well, and we can’t. At the same time, to improve our schools, one of the most important measures we can take is to retain teachers longer.  We need to figure out how.