Seventeen years ago, a couple of criminologists at the University of Maryland published an interesting paper about the 1976 District ban on handguns — a ban that was recently overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds it was inimical to the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms to protect themselves.
The researchers employed a simple procedure: They tabulated all the suicides that had taken place in Washington between 1968 and 1987. Colin Loftin and David McDowall found that the gun ban correlated with an abrupt 25 percent decline in suicides in the city.
Loftin and McDowall, who now work at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York, also tabulated suicide rates in Maryland and Virginia over the same period, to test whether suicide rates just happened to be declining in the entire region. There was no difference in the suicide rate in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs before and after the D.C. gun ban. The researchers also tabulated the kinds of suicide that declined in Washington: The 25 percent decline was entirely driven by a decline in firearm-related suicide.
There are many ways to read the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, but all the versions point to one core idea: Americans have the right to own guns to protect themselves against outside threats, whether the danger comes from a school shooter, a vicious mugger, a robber breaking into a house, a lawless neighborhood — even the government itself.
What the authors of the Second Amendment did not foresee, however, is that when people own a gun, they unwittingly raise their risk of getting hurt and killed — because the odds that they will one day use their gun to commit suicide are much larger than the odds they will use their gun to defend themselves against intruders, muggers and killers.
States with high rates of gun ownership — Alabama, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico — have suicide rates that are more than double the suicide rate in states with low rates of gun ownership, such as Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii and New York, said Matthew Miller, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. The difference is not because people in gun-owning states are more suicidal than people in states where fewer people own guns, but that suicide attempts in states with lots of guns produce many more completed suicides.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard. “There are a dozen case-controlled studies, all of which show the gun in the home is a risk factor for suicide for the gun owner, for the spouse, for the gun owner’s children.”
Turning a gun on ourselves, or having a family member turn a gun on someone in the household, doesn’t intuitively feel as real a risk as muggers, robbers and murderers. Given the choice between trusting our intuitions and trusting the evidence, most of us go with our gut.
If TV dramas about cops and violence were to actually depict the reality of how death and mayhem usually unfold in America, however, these are the scenarios that would stream into our homes each night: An elderly widower, lonely beyond words, shoots himself. A middle-aged executive, who has lost everything in an economic downturn, throws herself off a tall building. Two teenagers pull a Romeo-and-Juliet-style suicide as a protest against an uncaring world.
The reason we can be sure that suicide — and not assaults, break-ins, muggings, school shootings and other fatal attacks by sinister strangers — would account for most of the stories is that suicide dwarfs homicide as a killer in the United States. There were 32,637 suicides in the country in 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available. That year, the collective homicidal mayhem caused by domestic abusers, violent criminals, gang fights, drug wars, break-ins, shootouts with cops, accidental gun discharges and cold, premeditated murder produced 18,538 deaths.
Even the risk of terrorism doesn’t begin to come close to the risk of suicide.
Only a tiny fraction of the 400,000 suicide attempts that bring Americans into emergency rooms each year involve guns. But because guns are so lethal, 17,002 of all suicides in 2005 — 52 percent — involved people shooting themselves.
The grimness of these statistics repeats itself endlessly, year after year, but makes no difference to our collective fantasies and fears about violence — and the reasons millions of people buy handguns for “protection.” Muggers, robbers and gangs feel scary. Most people don’t think of themselves as potential threats — after all, doesn’t suicide happen only to the insane?
Overwhelmingly, the research suggests suicide is usually an act of impulsive desperation — an impulse that passes. Most people who survive suicide attempts do not go on to kill themselves later on. Gun owners are no more likely than non-gun-owners to be suicidal. But within the window of a mad impulse, people who have lethal means at their disposal are much more likely to kill themselves than those who lack such means.
“If you bought a gun today, I could tell you the risk of suicide to you and your family members is going to be two- to tenfold higher over the next 20 years,” Harvard’s Miller said. “There are not many things you can do to increase your risk of dying tenfold.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Amid the aftershocks of the senseless shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., our ever-more-complex society goes on to publicly discuss what happened and how to avoid such tragedy in the future.
But there are also private considerations and quieter questions of how to respond — on a personal level — to suffering parents.
What can you say to parents who have lost a child? What can you do?
No one is an expert when it comes to this most horrific, most out-of-the-natural-order-of-things disaster. The grief a bereaved parent feels resides deep within and is individually expressed. Different people respond in different ways.
Tragically, my wife, Jan, and I have experience. Our two beautiful, brilliant and ebullient sons, Stone, 24, and Holt, 20, were killed when an out-of-control tractor-trailer crashed into their car — while the boys were stopped in traffic — on a Virginia interstate in the summer of 2009. In one cruelest instant, we lost all of our children.
And so we speak only from our own experience.
As bereaved parents ourselves, we feel deep empathy and compassion for any parent who loses a child of any age — and especially now for the parents of Newtown.
We have an intense knowledge of the personal horror, the chaos, the confusion, the total shock and disbelief the mothers and fathers are feeling. We share their all-consuming pain and that deepest of human longings for it simply to … not … be … true.
We cry for the lost children of Newtown, and we cry for their parents.
But what can you say to someone who has lost a child? “I am so sorry,” is a start. And, we have discovered, it is also possibly all there is to say. There is just not much else to speak of. At least, that’s the way we feel.
And what can you do? There are many things that people have done since Holt and Stone were killed that have been helpful and meaningful. The gestures are simple — and yet profound because of the courage and restraint and, yes, love, it takes to do them.
On hearing the reality-wracking news, dear friends of the boys and of ours came to us to cry with us.
A large group set up a food calendar, a dinner-delivery system that fed Jan and me for months and months — on many days that we did not want to get out of bed, much less shop and cook and take care of ourselves. Friends took turns, preparing one meal a day, bringing it by around sunset, speaking to us a little if we felt like it or leaving it at the front door if we didn’t. We are forever grateful to those who participated.
Other friends have stepped in to do other simple things. One swept our driveway. Others raked leaves and cleaned up the yard. Many have come to the house, one at a time, to spend a couple of hours helping Jan address hundreds of thank-you notes. Others dropped off fresh flowers once a week, offered to go shopping for us, left thoughtful gifts at our doorstep, such as a homemade moss garden and heart-shaped rocks. People donated to various charities in honor of our sons. A neighboring family appeared one morning to shovel heavy snow from our driveway.
Another bereaved parent told us about The Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents and family members who have lost children.
Some friends simply gave us long, deeply felt hugs and held us as we sobbed inconsolably.
And above all, the most important thing people have done — and still do for Jan and me — is to remember Holt and Stone. In little ways, such as posting Facebook messages, texting us on their birthdays or holidays, sharing sweet memories with us. And in big ways, such as establishing memorials at their high schools in Maryland and their colleges in Delaware, Florida and Texas.
Many people helped us establish a foundation to honor the beautiful lives that our sons lived — and many continue to support it.
Simple yet profound gestures.
During the past 3 1/2 years, people have said to us: “I just can’t imagine …” We never, ever imagined this either. But now that this horror has happened to Stone and Holt, and to Jan and me, we ask our friends to try to imagine. The tender ones who have imagination and compassion sit with us quietly and listen — and try to help us feel less alone.
As retired Presbyterian minister and author Eugene Peterson told NPR following the Newtown shootings: “Silence is sometimes the best thing to do, holding a hand, hugging somebody. There are no adages that explain or would make any difference to the suffering. Sometimes people say, ‘I don’t know what to say to these people.’ You know, I say don’t say anything. Just hold their hand. Hold them, hug them and just stay around for an hour or so in silence and just be there. That’s what we need at times like this …”
Actually, it’s what Jan and I, as bereaved parents, will need for the rest of our lives. The world may recover from the deaths of our children. We will never fully recover from such life wounds. How could we?
We imagine that, like us, the parents of Newtown will need love and support and room to grieve — in their own ways and at their own pace. For a long, long, very long time.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In June 1999, following the attack at Columbine High School, two agencies–the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education–launched a collaborative effort to begin to answer these questions. The result was the Safe School Initiative, an extensive examination of 37 incidents of targeted school shootings and school attacks that have occurred in the United States beginning with the earliest identified
incident in 1974 through June 2000. The focus of the Safe School Initiative was on examining the thinking, planning, and other behaviors engaged in by students who carried out school attacks. Particular attention was given to identifying pre-attack behaviors and communications that might be detectable–or “knowable”–and could help in preventing some future attacks.
10 key findings of the Safe School Initiative study. These findings are as follows:
• Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.
• Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.
• Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
• There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
• Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.
• Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.
• Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack.
• Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
• In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
• Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were
stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.
From the moment news broke of another shooting, the question reverberated: why? As the tragedies continue, our collective national frustration has boiled over: Aurora, Columbine, Tucson, Virginia Tech … Why does this keep happening? Why can’t someone explain?
In the 80 interminable hours it took to get a glimpse at the suspect, a second question emerged: what was a look at James Holmes going to reveal?
When he walked into court Monday morning, one thing was immediately obvious. Something was wrong with this guy. Which was weirder, the dazed expression he wore most of the 11 minutes of the hearing, or the sudden bursts of wild eyes, matching his ridiculous orange hair?
The obvious explanation, which many viewers and commentators embraced, was that he was out of his mind or, medically speaking, undergoing some sort of psychotic break. But a minority view pushed back, and hard: the hair, the eyes, the sensational getup for the attack were a little too cute: a cold-blooded killer, playing crazy.
You will never understand this man if you leap to either of these conclusions. Do not look for a unified theory of mass murder, a single coherent drive. It doesn’t exist. Examining all the mass murderers together yields a hopeless mass of contradictions.
Forensic psychiatrists are not baffled by these tragedies. One drive will never explain them. Instead, experts have sorted them into types, which bring the crimes into remarkably clear relief. These researchers find that aside from terrorism, most of these mass murders are committed by criminals who fall into three groups: psychopaths, the delusionally insane, and the suicidally depressed. Look through these lenses, accept the differences, and some of our worst recent tragedies make more sense: Seung-Hui Cho, who shot up Virginia Tech, was delusionally insane; Dylan Klebold, at Columbine, was deeply depressed; and Eric Harris, his co-conspirator, was the psychopath.
Occasionally, there are combinations, or rare exceptions, involving brain tumors or substance abuse. The substance danger has made a resurgence with the abuse of bath salts, recently implicated in many violent crimes.
Mass murderers do share a few common traits. The best meta-study on the subject is an exhaustive report by the Secret Service in 2002, which studied all school shooters for a 26-year period. In this cohort, all the shooters were male, 81 percent warned someone overtly that they were going to do it, and a staggering 98 percent had recently experienced what they considered a significant failure or loss.
Despite this last fact, the ubiquitous question “what made him snap?” leads us astray. The Secret Service found that 93 percent planned the attack in advance. Hardly spontaneous combustion. A long, slow, chilling spiral down. Early evidence in the Aurora case suggests it fits this pattern. James Holmes apparently spent months acquiring the guns and ammunition he used, and it’s likely his descent began much earlier. What set him off down that path?
Psychopaths are the easiest to explain. They seem to be born with no capacity for empathy, a complete disregard for the suffering of others. The sadistic psychopath, a rarity, makes a cold-blooded calculation to enjoy the pain he inflicts. Killing meant nothing to Eric Harris at Columbine—humans were as disposable as fungus in a petri dish. “Just all nature, chemistry, and math,” he wrote.
Harris was witty, charming, and endearing—like most psychopaths—but he artfully masked his hate. “I hate the f–king world,” his journal begins, a year before the attack. Hate roars from every page, but it is contempt that really comes through. “You know what I hate?” he posted on his website. “People who mispronounce words, like ‘acrost,’ and ‘pacific’ for ‘specific.’ You know what I hate? The WB network!!!! Oh Jesus, Mary Mother of God Almighty, I hate that channel with all my heart and soul.” What an ordeal for him to tolerate all us inferior beings.
Harris’s burning desire was a command performance to show us how powerful he really was: “I have a goal to destroy as much as possible,” he wrote in his journal. “I want to burn the world. KILL MANKIND. no one should survive. ”
For those bandying about terms like “evil,” “bad seed,” or “born bad,” this is who you have in mind. Sadistic psychopaths are callous, vicious creatures, probably born that way, with cruelty to animals and a fascination with fire typically showing up by grade school. There is no known effective treatment or cure. It is what the otherwise eloquent Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was describing when he went briefly astray and called the Aurora killer “delusional,” “diabolical,” and “demonic.”
Can we spot these killers? Of the three types of mass killers, psychopaths leave the fewest warning signs. They are master manipulators who delight in deceit. People see them as kind, trustworthy, and endearing. But it is an elaborate ruse. Harris bragged that he deserved an Oscar for duping his parents.
Families who met with Wayne and Kathy Harris told me the Harrises realized in retrospect their boy was a psychopath, but were oblivious to that danger at the time. They knew he had anger issues, and legal run-ins; they were punishing him sternly, restricting his freedom (the surest way to infuriate a psychopath). They thought if he could find an interest or vocation in which to immerse himself, his idle hands would be out of the devil’s playground. How were they to know he was flexing his creative muscles, staging an elaborate death ritual?
Those who saw Holmes’s bizarre courtroom behavior as a calculated ploy to appear insane are describing a psychopath, also called a “sociopath” by clinicians. Psychopaths are not crazy in the sense that they don’t know what they are doing. They are hyperrational—they just don’t care about our pain. Psychopaths are remarkably like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, if you strip away the costume and theatrics. But psychopathic killers have one Achilles’ heel: they revel in glory and like to brag. Look for clues as James Holmes’s history comes to light.
While psychopaths kill for their own amusement, severe psychotics—a very different category of sufferers—are driven to slaughter to extinguish their torment.
Their agony is typically apparent to everyone. The official report on the Virginia Tech killings documented Seung-Hui Cho’s steady disintegration, beginning in third grade and reaching homicidal ideation by eighth. It listed a dozen pages of “aberrant behavior,” from “pathological shyness and isolation” to stalking women in the dorm. Cho wrote weird, angry plays for creative-writing class, which he refused to discuss. He sat silently, spurning eye contact, with his ball cap pulled down to shield his eyes.
Since the tragedy, Cho was widely diagnosed as psychotic—the clinical term for a broad spectrum of deep mental illnesses including schizophrenia and paranoia. Psychotic killers are, most commonly, suffering from schizophrenia, a disease marked by delusions, hallucinations, and loss of emotion, speech, or motivation. Schizophrenia seems genetically predetermined but generally lies dormant until the late teens or early 20s. Alleged Tucson killer Jared Lee Loughner, 22, and Reagan would-be assassin John Hinckley, 25, were both diagnosed as schizophrenics.
Severe psychotics like Cho are delusional, way out of touch with reality. And yet most who suffer from these mental illnesses, even some severely, pose no threat to anyone but themselves. So how does a mentally ill man like Cho make that awful journey to the trigger of a gun? Slowly. Days or months of planning are preceded by years of mental unraveling. As the disease sets in, the victim is typically perplexed and then distraught by the alarming thoughts ricocheting around his brain. Occasional flutters build to a chorus of angry chatter. “Schizophrenic delusions are usually grandiose and persecutory,” noted psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg explains. “There can be terror as a teen or young adult feels he is losing his mind.” Cho was a red-flag assembly line. Everyone around him could see. Cho even checked himself in for a psych evaluation.
What we fail to grasp about killers descending into this kind of illness is the fear. Picture yourself waking up this morning, coherent enough to see that yesterday you were off your rocker. Likewise, three days ago. And two days last week. In and out, but drifting deeper into what you see quite clearly as the crazy pit. Could you get help? That would require confessing. Too dangerous. If you shared what you were up to yesterday, you’d land in a padded cell, electrodes attached to your head, medications administered to obliterate your personality. No way.
Most schizophrenics survive the internal terror, but for future killers, the delusion can be a coping mechanism: I’m not losing my grasp, you people are just out to get me. Arm yourself. Oh God. Which way to point it? Me? Them? For most mass murderers, it will end up being both.
“Do you know what it feels to be spit on your face and to have trash shoved down your throat?” Cho railed in his manifesto before killing at Virginia Tech. “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscience. You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.” Cho found a way to help everyone. He would be the hero of this tragedy.
“There was pleasure in planning such a grand demonstration of ‘justice,’” wrote Roger Depue, former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, in the official report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel. “His thought processes were so distorted that he began arguing to himself that his evil plan was actually doing good.”
These tortured minds can lurch momentarily from one extreme to the next, an exhausting ride. Ochberg explains that the flat affect tends to be rather constant, while the bizarre impulses and behavior tend to come and go in bursts. It can puzzle the untrained observer. Psychiatrists who consider Holmes, the alleged Aurora killer, psychotic, would not have been surprised to see him looking catatonic for most of his court appearance, with fits of crazy eyes. It’s unclear whether Holmes is schizophrenic, but his behavior would fit neatly with the profile if he is.
The third type of killer is the hardest to fathom. Depression, for mass murder? We’ve all tasted depression, or some version of it, so we think. But it’s not even close.
Dylan Klebold, before his rampage at Columbine, felt his soul dying. Hopeless. Helpless. Unrelenting despair. He documented it in a private journal for two years. He also left telling school essays and notorious videotapes. The wealth of information provides one of the most enlightening portraits of the depressive descent to a killing spree.
“Such a sad, desolate, lonely unsalvageable i feel I am,” Klebold confided to his journal. “not fair, NOT FAIR!!! I wanted happiness!! I never got it!!! Let’s sum up my life. the most miserable existence in the history of time.”
Other days, Klebold’s spirit soared. He dreamed of a blissful world, with himself vaguely superhuman, “this tranciever of the everything.” It’s glorious. Tranquil. Radiating with love. Klebold fills entire pages with elaborate hearts. “OH MY GOD,” he gushes between suicidal gasps, “I am almost sure I am in love. Hehehe.”
The despair returns. His writing grows erratic, fevered all-caps: “F–KIN DUM-ASS SHITHEAD…F–K!” He grows quiet, returns to his tidy penmanship to close out the entry: “No emotions. not caring. Yet another stage in this shit life. Suicide.”
A startling wake-up call came three years after Columbine. The Secret Service found that 78 percent of shooters had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. Sixty-one percent had a documented history of extreme depression or desperation.
The difficulty is not in recognizing a problem, but its severity. An angry, moping teenage boy? That describes much of the high-school population. Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, wrote movingly about her experience in an essay for O Magazine in 2009: “I believed that if I loved someone as deeply as I loved him, I would know if he were in trouble.” She saw only sadness. “He did not speak of death, give away possessions, or say that the world would be better off without him.” Sue Klebold used the piece as a plea to other moms to take what appears like recurring sadness seriously. Good advice. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force estimates that 6 percent of American adolescents—2 million kids—suffer clinical depression. Most go undiagnosed.
With one quick skim of Klebold’s journal, suicide is easy to understand. But why take others with you? Murder instead of suicide comes down to whom you blame. Through much of his journal, Klebold blames himself (he talks about suicide on the very first page). Sometimes God. But slowly, gradually, he focuses the blame outward.
Most vengeful depressives blame their girlfriend, boss, or schoolmates. Some just aim to kill those targets. But the eventual mass murderer sees it differently: it wasn’t one or two mean people who drove him down, it was all of us. Society was brutal, the whole teeming world is mean. We all need to understand what we did to him; we all need to pay. “In 26.5 hours ill be dead, & in happiness,” Klebold finally wrote. “The little zombie human fags will know their errors & be forever suffering & mournful. HAHAHA.”
Two months before Columbine, he wrote a chilling short story for a creative-writing class—after Harris had already assembled the guns and some of the explosives. The story involved a single killer very much like Harris shooting down random “preps” in cold blood, with many of the same atmospherics planned for Columbine. The first-person narrator, apparently a stand-in for Klebold, is just an observer. He watches the gunman intently, and in the final moments, gets a good look and sees right into him. “I not only saw in his face, but also felt emanating from him power, complacence, closure, and godliness.” Sounds pretty appealing. Especially compared to “the most miserable existence in the history of time.”
These seem strikingly similar to Cho’s rants, but Klebold understood what he was doing. Cho had lost the ability to discern reality from fantasy. In his reality, he was helping the world. Klebold knew he wasn’t. He was just getting even.
Most mass murderers intend to die in the act. And most do. James Holmes was an exception, meaning a trial, a psychological evaluation, and answers about why it happened this time.
If Holmes is a psychopath, he probably had a ball Friday. He would have been gleeful through the months from conception to planning and attack. If he’s not a psychopath, he may have spent months or years descending into his own private hell. But which hell? Insanity or suicidal depression? Anyone who claims they can answer these questions this early is ignorant or irresponsible. But we will learn.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
When David Eagleman was 8 years old, he went exploring. He found a house under construction — prime territory for an adventurous kid — and he climbed on the roof to check out the view. But what looked like the edge of the roof was just tar paper, and — you can feel it coming — when David stepped on it, he fell.
Whoosh … Thud.
David was fine. But between whoosh and the thud, something odd happened. As David remembers it, he noticed every detail of his surroundings: the edge of the roof moving past him, the red bricks below moving toward him. He even did a little literary analysis: “I was thinking about Alice in Wonderland, how this must be what it was like for her, when she fell down the rabbit hole.”
All of that happened in just 0.86 seconds. David knows that now because he has calculated how long it takes to fall 12 feet. David Eagleman is now Dr. Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, and one of his specialties is exploring how our brains perceive and understand time.
Several years ago, motivated in part by his childhood plunge, David started studying the way our sense of time distorts in crisis situations. He has gathered a huge number of stories from people who have survived falls, car crashes, bike accidents, etc. Everyone, he says, seems to say the same thing: “It felt like the world was moving in slow motion.”
But what is really going on? David started to think that maybe, in a crisis, the brain goes into a sort of turbo mode, processing everything at higher-than-normal-speed. If the brain were to speed up, he thought, the world would appear to slow down. This would work just like a slow-motion movie; in a slow-mo shot of a hummingbird, for example, you can see each individual wing movement in what would otherwise be just a blur.
Taking The Plunge
So David decided to craft an experiment to study this “slow-motion effect” in action. But to do that, he had to make people fear for their lives — without actually putting them in danger. His first attempt involved a field trip to Six Flags AstroWorld, an amusement park in Houston, Texas. He used his students as his subjects. “We went on all of the scariest roller coasters, and we brought all of our equipment and our stopwatches, and had a great time,” David says. “But it turns out nothing there was scary enough to induce this fear for your life that appears to be required for the slow-motion effect.”
But, after a little searching, David discovered something called SCAD diving. (SCAD stands for Suspended Catch Air Device.) It’s like bungee jumping without the bungee. Imagine being dangled by a cable about 150 feet off the ground, facing up to the sky. Then, with a little metallic click, the cable is released and you plummet backward through the air, landing in a net (hopefully) about 3 seconds later.
SCAD diving was just what David needed — it was definitely terrifying. But he also needed a way to judge whether his subjects’ brains really did go into turbo mode. So, he outfitted everybody with a small electronic device, called a perceptual chronometer, which is basically a clunky wristwatch. It flashes numbers just a little too fast to see. Under normal conditions — standing around on the ground, say — the numbers are just a blur. But David figured, if his subjects’ brains were in turbo mode, they would be able to read the numbers.
The Time Blur
The falling experience was, just as David had hoped, enough to freak out all of his subjects. “We asked everyone how scary it was, on a scale from 1 to 10,” he reports, “and everyone said 10.” And all of the subjects reported a slow-motion effect while falling: they consistently over-estimated the time it took to fall. The numbers on the perceptual chronometer? They remained an unreadable blur.
“Turns out, when you’re falling you don’t actually see in slow motion. It’s not equivalent to the way a slow-motion camera would work,” David says. “It’s something more interesting than that.”
According to David, it’s all about memory, not turbo perception. “Normally, our memories are like sieves,” he says. “We’re not writing down most of what’s passing through our system.” Think about walking down a crowded street: You see a lot of faces, street signs, all kinds of stimuli. Most of this, though, never becomes a part of your memory. But if a car suddenly swerves and heads straight for you, your memory shifts gears. Now it’s writing down everything — every cloud, every piece of dirt, every little fleeting thought, anything that might be useful.
Because of this, David believes, you accumulate a tremendous amount of memory in an unusually short amount of time. The slow-motion effect may be your brain’s way of making sense of all this extra information. “When you read that back out,” David says, “the experience feels like it must have taken a very long time.” But really, in a crisis situation, you’re getting a peek into all the pictures and smells and thoughts that usually just pass through your brain and float away, forgotten forever.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The following are sample questions that can be used to generate discussion about a traumatic event:
I. Fact Questions
- How did you first learn of the incident?
- Where were you when the incident occurred?
- What did you see?
- In what way were you involved in the incident?
- Who told you about the incident?
- What were you doing at the time of the incident?
II. Thought Questions
- What was your first thought when you learned, saw, heard, about the incident?
- What were you thinking when the incident was occurring?
- What did you say to yourself?
- What have you been thinking/saying to yourself since the incident happened?
- What thoughts keep coming back to you?
III. Reaction Questions
- What is the worst part of this incident for you?
- Which part of this would you most like to change?
- What about the incident makes this such a difficult situation to handle?
- What are you having the most difficulty handling?
- What is the strongest reaction that you are experiencing?
IV. Symptom Questions
- What, if any, physical symptoms have you experienced?
- Has anyone experienced sleep disturbance?
- Has anyone’s appetite been affected?
- What “out of the ordinary” physical symptoms are you experiencing?
- What is your body telling you about this incident?
V. Relationship Questions
- How has this incident affected the people closest to you?
- What have others said or done that upset you?
- What have others said or done that has been helpful to you?
- Has it been helpful to talk to others about what has happened?
- Do you have people that you can speak to about the incident?
VI. Recovery Questions
- What are you doing to manage the stress that you are feeling?
- What are you doing to cope with the incident?
- What are you doing that’s working for you?
- What are you doing that’s not working for you?
- If someone else were in your situation, what would you advise them to do?
- What are you going to do to take care of yourself?
- What things have you done in the past that helped get you through a stressful event/period?
- What things do you have planned in the next several days that will help you in dealing with this stressful situation?
As the years pass, you build up a collection of good and bad memories. Your brain has the ability to recall these memories at the drop of a hat – almost instantly. As an example, read the following questions and watch how fast your brain pulls the recollection: Name some songs by the Beatles. What was the last movie you saw? Where were you on 9/11? Where were you when the OJ verdict was announced? Who is the president of the United States? Who was your first kiss? As you can see, your brain instantly finds a memory when a question is asked.
There are several types of memory, each with different time courses that involve different parts of the brain. One kind of memory that is easy to recognize is that of short-term vs. long-term memory. Short-term memory is fast and takes no more than several minutes to recall. Short-term memory reflects your ability to recall specifics, the particulars of what went on. However, such memories fade quickly. Long-term memory extends beyond those several minutes, to hours, days and years in the past. Another kind of memory is called working memory, which is usually associated with short-term memory. Working memory is the ability to hold facts or details of events in the forefront of your thoughts.
All types of memory are interconnected and pathways in your brain. When you experience a very significant event, the brain records not only the details of the experience (where you were, when, who was there, what happened, etc.) but the emotions you experienced at the time as well. The entire memory of an emotional event (an assault, an automobile accident, a wedding, death of a loved one, a combat experience, etc.) is actually remembered by several systems and stored in separate areas of the brain. That is to say that memory is distributed throughout the brain. No single region of the brain has any one of these types of memory completely embedded in it. Instead, each type of memory involves several areas of the brain acting from different regions, where information is brought together, processed and then re-distributed to where your memories are permanently housed. This happens simultaneously, with all of the regions being activated and processing at the same time, so memories are recalled before you even have it concentrate.
Ever wonder why some memories can stay vivid for years while others fade with time? The answer is emotion. Your memory will only hold on to new information (working memory) gained from these events for about five days (this is your short-term memory). Memories that are not significant are usually forgotten or “dumped” and erased after this five-day waiting period (this is the time taken to transfer events from short to long term memory). The brain will learn or memorize all kinds of information with frequent repetition and constant use. However, if a memory containing only facts is not frequently used, the memory slowly fades away. You can store and create memory, as when memorizing spelling words or learning math. For example: 1) Can you calculate square root by hand? 2) Do you remember the names of all your high school teachers or classmates? In the second question, chances are you can remember those who also have emotional memories attached to them. What I mean is that when your emotions are activate, your brain automatically takes note. That is why you remember some events from the past with vivid detail, particularly the ones that were emotionally charged (like a favorite possession, an unjust punishment or first love). For example, I remember when I was able to tie my shoes for the first time. I can still recall how I ran to my mother and proudly showed her my accomplishment. It was an emotion-filled moment, but also provided useful information that I have carried on to this day, which is why it is still so vivid in my memory.
Humans are hardwired to remember things that threaten or are very rewarding to them. You have learned that what is threatening may be painful and what is rewarding may offer pleasure. These pleasures and pains trigger emotions that elevate the status of any would-be memory. This makes a lot of sense in evolutionary terms: emotional events would be biologically significant. Many survival lessons involve emotion, such as fear, anger or joy and your memory is enhanced by hormones that are released when you experience a strong emotion or stress. This explains why emotional arousal has such a powerful influence on how well you remember things.
What is so important about this? Well, in daily living, especially during times of stress, your memory is very important. Your memory is active every second of your life. It can be controlled when you try and memorize something. Yet your memory is primarily unconscious, in that it works automatically beyond your control and awareness. But the key point is that it can change your mood within two minutes. Perhaps, you have injured your knee in an accident and whenever the memory is reactivated in your mind, the knee may begin to throb with pain and discomfort. The strength of the memory is associated with the intensity of the event. This can trigger your body to react as it did at the time of your experience. So whenever you see and or hear about an accident, or even watch one in a movie, your memory triggers painful tension in your knee.
Emotional memories re-create your original emotional response. A sight, a sound, or even a smell can bring back the joy, fear, love, or hate that you have associated with it. You may not remember all of your many trips to the grocery store or gas station. However, you will always remember times which have a good or bad value attached to them, such as the time a store was robbed when you were there, the time an old lady threatened you over a parking spot, or the time you spilled gasoline all over your clothes in one of those self-serve pumps. You don’t remember washing your car unless that spray wand just about gave you a skull fracture. In short, if a daily memory does not have a strong emotional value, it is faded out. The problem is that you can give an ordinary, harmless, experience greater emotional value then it really deserves.
When you get upset, scared, angry, or nervous without any identifiable cause it is a sign that your feelings are being “triggered” by the memory of a past situation. When people feel a strong emotion, the emotional brain (amygdala) remembers it, along with many other details connected with the event. Even things that are indirectly related to the event can trigger the old feeling without our even being aware that this is happening. The emotional brain (amygdala) takes in all kinds of impressions like sights, smells, tastes, and sounds and uses a “fast track circuit” to try to find a match with something that happened before. The mind is constantly looking for patterns, which are stronger and have better developed pathways in the brain. As an example, an adult who has had a bad first marriage may automatically trigger an emotional memory of jealousy any time his wife mentions, “I might be late”. The anxiety in that statement causes his brain to search for a memory and recalls a feeling of jealousy from his first marriage. If the husband dwells on this feeling, he will become insecure, jealous, and suspicious for no reason in the present.
This raises the important point that the brain doesn’t know if an experience is real or imagined! How can this be you may ask? Well, the brain creates memories based on information it is given, usually through your senses but sometimes through your thoughts. If you are in the same room with your sweetheart, it will give you that warm, romantic feeling. However, looking at their picture and thinking about them will do the same thing, even though they are not present. Even better, simply thinking about them will produce the same feelings (triggering the same emotional memory). The brain only reacts to the thought or sense, it doesn’t care how it receives that feeling or information, be it by physical presence, by reminders (pictures), or by “thought”.
When an emotional memory is triggered, you will say the same things, feel the same intensity of emotion, and behave the same way that you did at the time the memory was created. That is to say, you will respond to today as if it was a different time or place in your life. The emotional experiences you have endured resurface and are replayed when you perceive an event in the present as emotionally similar to something for your past. As a result you may become defensive and lash out with anger or withdrawn and avoid confrontation out of sadness or fear. Many of these reactions, however, are not appropriate for the current situation. These reactions are based on past relationships and emotional experiences, causing you erupt or melt down in the form of crying, yelling, panic or violence.
People that are shy and introverted tell therapists that when they enter a restaurant, people look at them, creating anxiety. It’s true, but it applies to everyone, not just those who are shy. When anything enters your visual field, you unconsciously begin scanning it. A person walking into a room is “scanned” by almost everyone else and that automatic scanning procedure takes about two seconds. The unconscious mind is looking for two things 1) to see if you have a memory or point of reference for comparison and 2) to protect you for any signs of danger. If the new individual is odd looking, carrying a weapon, or naked, the brain will start a full-scan and react accordingly (long stare, fright, or “Don’t I know you?). Individuals with physical features that are unusual lead to the common “double take” where you will first unconsciously scan for safety and reference, then look again consciously to examine and analyze. These references are designed to help you, as when remembering an old friend, the location of the store in a mall, or when remembering needed facts/details.
Let’s say you can’t stand the smell of fresh asphalt. This may be because you had a bad crash on your bike on fresh asphalt when you were younger. You may or may not even remember the crash, but your body does, and it links that smell with the crash. A dog bit one of my clients when he was young. The bite hurt, and my client was frightened. The event became stored in his emotional memory. As a teenager, the sight of a dog-even a gentle one-still triggered a feeling of fear and hesitation. When my client sees a dog now, his brain instantaneously compares the image of the dog with his past memories through the fast track circuit. The brain finds a match-with the memory of “dog” and getting bitten-and triggers a feeling of fear. This feeling then affects how his brain perceives the dog. He reacts with a fear of dogs without knowing why. The information about the dog goes to the brain through another pathway-the “slow track circuit.” If the different parts of your brains are working well together, the brain can then tell that everything is OK. It’s a friendly dog, and there is no reason to feel threatened. However, even if this happens, the initial reaction has already sent signals down my client’s nerves causing stress hormones to be released into his body.
Of course, such memories do not happen just with dogs. They happen with all of your past situations, including your relationships with other people-and places and situations that have left deep impressions on you. A person with a certain kind of walk or body type might cause you to feel fear because he reminds you of someone who once bullied you. The smell of a hot dog can make you nauseous because you came down with a stomach flu after eating one once. You may dislike people with red hair because of that one red-headed person who once picked on you. And the list goes on.
Your emotional response to a memory begins 90 to 120 seconds after a memory surfaces. For example, recall when you were told about the death of a loved one. The first two minutes of the conversation may have gone well, but then you become sad. If this memory remains in your attention, the feelings from the funeral and bereavement will surface today. Your mind then recalls other experiences of loss, unfairness, or guilt that is associated with what was felt at the time of your initial grief. In this way what was unconscious become conscious. You are now mindful of a memory, which was dormant and now has sprung to life. And the longer the memory is available in your awareness, the stronger the emotional component becomes, to the point that you may begin to cry. Famous actors and actresses have known this method for years. If they want to cry on stage, they can recall a painful memory from their personal life and within 90 seconds, tears are flowing.
When a memory comes to your awareness, it is as though you have placed a disc in a DVD player. The disc begins playing and you hear the same discussion or feel the same feelings over and over. Husbands and wives refer to this sometimes as “broken record” conversations. You may get the same lectures, the same anger, the same resentment, the same everything – it’s all on the disc. For example, a couple can be discussing whether they have enough money to purchase a new computer. The wife mentions using a particular credit card – that triggers a memory in her husband, hitting the play button on the “credit card” disc. At that point, the husband launches into a long story about credit cards, high interest, harassing letters, and so forth. When that memory is pulled up, a discussion about the computer becomes useless. While you may try to remain business-like and focus on a topic of discussion, you can’t help but think of the past.
You know when an emotional memory is trigged if the emotional reaction is far above what would be expected from the situation. If the listener has the general idea that the conversation doesn’t make sense, you’re probably listening to someone talk about emotions from the past. For example, a husband and wife meet an old boyfriend or girlfriend at the supermarket. Suddenly, there’s a gigantic reaction complete with jealousy, suspiciousness, and anger. Many recollections begin with, “We’ve talked about this before,” “When I was young…” and so on. References to the past are almost always related to an emotional memory. For example, teenagers have difficulty, understanding why a simple request for money leads into a long discussion of dad’s collecting pop bottles for money during his youth. The key is the phrase, “When I was your age…” This kind of memory error is known as persistence. Persistence is not the loss of memory, nor is it the distortion of memory. A person suffering from persistence is doomed to remember events that he or she would prefer to forget and are frequently making references to the past. Persistence is often seen in post-traumatic stress disorder. After a traumatic event, such a violent attack or a rape, people often re-experience their memories of the event. Trauma victims seem to lose control over the retrieval of their trauma-related memories, so that the memories are constantly being pulled into awareness by the slightest trigger. Persistence can occur in non-traumatic situations as well. Depressed individuals are often bothered by negative memories that intrude when they are not wanted.
One of the most common situations in which emotional memory is created is in physical or mental trauma. Many of us have experienced trauma in our life. Traumatic emotional memories can be created by physical assaults, combat experiences, crime, death of a loved one, viewing severe accidents, surgery, or brush-with-death experiences. In trauma, the brain not only memorizes everything about the event – including the emotions – but adds the surroundings as well. If you are assaulted in your home, suddenly your home is no longer comfortable due to the memories it produces. A severe automobile accident may prompt you to quit driving completely or develop panic attacks if you near the site of the accident. Traumatic emotional memories are perhaps the strongest memories and often create long-lasting complications or challenges if not properly handled.
Another common way that emotional memories create patterns is in the case of a panic attack. When you suffer a panic attack, hormones are released in the brain, which creates the muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and trembling associated with a panic attack. After an attack however, your brain remembers the feeling and the physical sensations. Months later, you may be in a crowded store or in an emotionally tense situation when the brain recognizes a physical sensation of tension, which it has seen before during the panic attack. At that point, the brain immediately triggers the “panic attack” memory. If you dwell on the memory of panic, you are quite likely to have another panic attack. Remember: With each emotion or experience, the brain is always searching to see if you have a memory on that topic.
Imagine being stressed-out for six months, almost at the breaking point. You decide to stop by the market to pick up some bread and milk. While in the store, you run into someone you dislike which immediately triggers a memory of how you were threatened and hurt by an argument with that person’s husband. That conflict reminds you of this morning’s argument with your spouse, which now dominates your concentration and your mood becomes worse. At this point, your brain, already overtaxed, kicks in with a panic attack. You feel your heartbeat race, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and you feel as though you are going to have a heart attack. You end up leaving your groceries and running out of the store. You now have compounded the threatening-memory of “this individual” and have created a new panic-memory with a label “market” on it. Therefore, the next time you drive by the market to stop for milk, your brain will pull the panic-memory. You’ll develop a feeling – “I can’t go in there!” This is exactly how people become agoraphobic, where they become fearful of leaving their home. You fear that the same negative outcomes that arose in the past will occur again. The link between the emotions and your memories is like the umbilical cord. You need to cut it so you can access the memory without the strength of your emotions
Debbie called to talk about a problem she was having. She had come a long way in her therapy, but she felt the need for a touch up. She just wanted to talk it out for a few minutes. Her friend, Robin, had died ten months ago, but she was still depressed. Her other friends were falling away from her, too. They were all busy with their own lives. They don’t take the initiative the way Robin used to. She was having ups and downs with her teenage son, her ex-husband, and she was neglecting her gardening. She didn’t have the energy she used to have.
This is the way depressed people talk when they are down. Life is flat, stale and unprofitable. There is no joy or even the hope of joy in the future. After fifteen minutes of rambling, Debbie burst out in tears, “I’m angry at Robin for leaving me! That’s what I am, angry. I didn’t even know it.” We heard her out, we validated her legitimate anger at this loss, this grievance. The wound hadn’t healed yet. It would take a few more months for it to close. As a lifelong pleaser, Debbie had not allowed herself the luxury of experiencing her legitimate anger at this grievance. She had sealed it over, or rather, her attitudes had sealed it over for her. We agreed that sending an anger letter to Robin for dying so young and for abandoning her so unfairly would be an appropriate Homework under the circumstances and said goodbye.
This phenomenon is called Bubbling Up. When we talk about, and relieve the overlay of attitudes and daily concerns that are in the way, we create an atmosphere in which it is possible for a concealed pain to bubble to the surface. We are encouraging it to happen by having real intentions, not good intentions. We are creating a context of mutual respect in which trust and cooperation can flourish. We are being patient. We are enabling Debbie to let go instead of hanging on. We are creating an atmosphere of respect in which it is possible for our client to heal and grow.
Debbie’s relief was palpable. She felt joy in finding the root of her grief. It had gotten away from her. Her anger at this undeserved loss had sunk below the level of conscious awareness. It had to be retrieved and it was. Debbie experienced feelings of relief, accomplishment, control, being alive in the present, identity, maturity, independence and all the other facets of self-respect. She had been taking this loss personally as she had taken similar losses in her childhood. She was a grown up now. She was able to remind herself that she was not an out of control victim of this loss. It was regrettable and unfortunate for Robin and for herself, but she had the power of choice now that she didn’t have as a child. She could finish her grieving now as a worthwhile human being in spite of what happened. The wound will heal cleaner than it would have otherwise.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Russia is hard on its children, and Yelizaveta Petsylya and Anastasia Korolyova finally decided, at the age of 14, to do what thousands of other Russian teenagers have done. There was one way to assert control over their lives, and that was to end them.
Russia has the third-highest teenage suicide rate in the world, just behind its neighbors Belarus and Kazakhstan and more than three times that of the United States. On an average day, about five Russians under age 20 take their own lives.
Psychiatrists and health experts here know why it happens. Alcohol abuse, domestic violence and rigid parenting all play a role. Too many parents expect unquestioning obedience. Social conformity is strictly enforced, especially outside the big cities. Isolation is a huge problem in such a large country. There’s rarely anywhere to turn for help — but even if there were, families would be unlikely to admit their failings to outsiders.
Suicide is an attempt to seek relief from all that, by taking charge. The two teens, called Liza and Nastya by their families and friends, left letters behind: They wanted to wear white dresses and be buried in white coffins, and in death their wishes were honored.
In the Soviet era, suicide was considered an affront to the state, the failure of a citizen to fulfill his responsibility. Psychiatry was more often associated with punishment than with therapy, and that left a stigma and mistrust of mental health care that persists. And, while championing the collective, the Soviets destroyed the old Russian sense of community. Bullying is everywhere. And so is loneliness.
“At home, you order, you enforce, you punish your kids instead of trying to understand them,” said Anatoly Severny, one of Russia’s very few child psychiatrists. “Schools use what I call repressive pedagogics. Kids are forced to do everything.”
When Liza and Nastya leaped on Feb. 7 from the roof of a high-rise on the north side of Lobnya, a mid-size suburb about 40 minutes by train from Moscow, the press took notice because UNICEF had just released a report on teenage suicide in Russia. Almost every day since then, there have been more reports of adolescents killing themselves — in Barnaul and Krasnoyarsk and Moscow and Yakutsk and Rostov-on-Don.
It seems like an epidemic, but in fact it’s the usual state of affairs. (The official statistics may undercount the suicide death toll by as much as 25 percent.) The media attention, unfortunately, lends a certain glamour to the act, said Sergei Belorusov, a psychotherapist and volunteer for a church-run Web site called Choose Life, which counsels those seeking help.
“At this age they don’t have a concept of death,” he said. “A teenage suicide is a message. They often think there’s something heroic about it. But they also think there’s a start-over button somewhere.”
Nastya was outgoing, open and frank. Liza, more complicated, wouldn’t let anyone get too close. Last May they began singing with a glee club at the Chaika cultural center. Nastya enjoyed it so much that she decided to take private singing lessons from Dmitry Konovalov, at about $8 an hour. Liza had a stronger voice, and more musical talent, but her mother wouldn’t pay for lessons. In disappointment, or anger, she withdrew from the glee club.
In January the two girls, friends since first grade, began cutting classes at School No. 8. But Nastya still came by for her twice-a-week lessons with Konovalov. He last saw her on Feb. 6, when they discussed what she would be working on at their next session, three days later. But the next day, she was dead.
“When you’re 14, you don’t clearly understand what suicide is,” Konovalov said. “ ‘How pretty I’ll be at my funeral!’ They don’t understand they can’t watch the reaction. It’s the end.”
Nastya, he said, never showed any signs of depression. But a month before the girls died, Liza posted a message on a Russian social Web site saying she would “respect to the end the person who stayed with her to the end.”
Nastya posted this message: “What would I do without my friends?”
Anton Baranov, who is a year ahead of Nastya and Liza at School No. 8, said they would all sometimes go out together in a group of five or six kids. The school is small — each grade has only about 25 students — so of course everyone knew everyone else. Anton said the school set up a small memorial to the girls, which came down after a week. The teachers talked to their classes about the suicides, but none had noticed ahead of time that there were any problems — despite the recent truancy.
“Nobody teaches teachers how to pick up on these cases,” Severny said. An attempt to introduce mental health services at schools has been “absolutely ineffective,” he said.
“The level of trust among students toward their schools, their teachers, even psychologists in schools, is very low,” said Alla Ivanova, a researcher at the Ministry of Health. “The culture is, you don’t discuss your problems with anybody.”
The suicide rate is highest in the Far East and in parts of northwestern Russia, said Bertrand Bainvel, head of the UNICEF office in Moscow. It is much higher in small towns than in cities. More boys kill themselves than girls. There is not a big seasonal variation, despite the long hours of darkness in a northern winter.
A teenager beset by problems at home, or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or trying to deal with sexual identity, goes into a tunnel, Belorusov said. His job is to try to expand the dimensions of that tunnel. He gets four or five referrals a week from Choose Life. It’s crisis intervention — e-mail exchanges that attempt to convince the adolescent on the other end that someone understands, and cares.
“So then we try to solve the problem together.”
Suicide is not impulsive, he said. First comes the idea, then a weighing of pros and cons. This, he said, is when an alert parent or teacher or friend should pick up the hints. “But people put up a fence. They don’t want to listen.”
So, like Liza and Nastya, the teenager withdraws further. The tunnel narrows. “And then the only self-realization is in the romance of the flight down,” Belorusov said. “And that’s when you go to the roof.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
A feeling of being unlovable is the attitude that one is not now, never has been and never will be lovable to any member of the same or opposite sex. This feeling can be a cancer of the personality, a mental melanoma and a malignancy of the spirit. These maladies can be fatal if allowed to remain undiagnosed and untreated, as they usually are. A feeling of being unlovable is a facet of self-contempt. Without love, or even the hope of love, life is hardly worth living.
We aren’t born feeling unlovable. We start out feeling no more and no less lovable than any one else. Then something happens to take away our birthright, our right to love and be loved as an equal member of the human race.
Julia, Early Recollection
“I was about five. I always tried to be a good girl, but I was always being punished for something. I remember one night my mother was holding my little brother on her lap. I wanted to sit on her lap too. She said, ‘Go away. Can’t you see I’m holding the baby!’ I had done something wrong again, but I didn’t know what.”
It is apparent now to Julia that what she did “wrong” was to be born female and to want her mother’s love. From this incident and countless others, Julia learned that males like Bobby are lovable; females like herself are not. The question arises to consciousness for the first time: “If my own mother won’t or can’t love me, who will?” The inevitable answer to that rhetorical question is: “No one.”
This phenomenon is called “rejection” in the therapy trade, but a more appropriate label from the child’s standpoint would be “annihilation.” The child feels that her validity as a person in her own right has been shattered; she may as well cease to exist. Since she doesn’t really know how to stop contributing to her own despair, the whole problem is insolvable. These “feelings” become the attitudes that Julia carries with her into adulthood, and these mistaken attitudes predispose her to behave in ways that are not appropriate to the reality situation. In certain circumstances, these attitudes will come to the fore, they will “kick in,” and impel her to say and do things that will be inappropriate and counter productive. They will make no sense to her partner. She will think, feel and behave as if these attitudes were rational and valid. She will not question them even after several re-enactments of the same scenario. She will not learn from her negative, unhappy experiences. In fact, each disaster will confirm that she is right: she is unworthy to be loved. By the time she grows up, Julia has a whole bunch of inappropriate, self defeating attitudes.
Not only does Julia have the attitude that she is unlovable, but to make things worse, she is convinced that there is no cure for her condition. She is doomed, trapped, beyond salvation. Her condition is terminal. This aspect is a set up for despair, depression and anxiety. The most malignant aspect of this constellation of feelings and attitudes is Julia’s anger at herself. She does not blame her mother for “rejecting” her. Like all daughters, her mother is “perfect” in her eyes. The rejection must, therefore, be her fault!
As an adult, Julia continues to operate out of these attitudes from her childhood. She is deficient in some unknown way, and she is angry at herself for “making herself” so unworthy of being loved. She is a prisoner. Her underlying conviction that she is unlovable predisposes her to behave in ways that will counter productively and self-destructively confirm the “truth” of her conviction. In other words, if she feels unloved she will make others “unlove” her. She works at it until she succeeds at failing.
For example, when some man begins to show in interest in her, she will, sooner or later, remember that she is unlovable and behave accordingly. She cannot believe he can love her. He must be lying. His lie makes her angry. She tests him to break him down, trying to get at the truth. She may make unreasonable demands, display unreasonable jealousy, manifest unreasonable criticality and anger until he gets the hint. When he leaves her, she can say to herself, “I knew it. I knew no one could love me. If he really loved me he would have passed the tests I set for him. But he didn’t; he failed. And so did I.”
It is not terribly difficult to arrange to be unlovable. It is hardly worth doing, but Julia does it anyway. She does not deserve otherwise. Her private logic is as follows:
1.”I am unlovable.
2.”Any man who would love me is obviously ignorant of that fact.
3.”I cannot love or respect anyone that stupid.
4.”Therefore, I have to get rid of him so I can be free to find someone worthy of me.”
And in the end, she confirms her original hypothesis that she:
• is unloved.
• is unlovable.
• is at fault.
• is justified in her ongoing anger at men, at life and at herself.
•can not trust the people who are supposed to love her because they can hurt her the most!
• is out of control and cannot make things happen in the real world.
• has no hope of happiness in this life.
She still doesn’t know how to solve the problem. In addition to being a prescription for depression and anxiety, this constellation of attitudes is a prescription for self-contempt, which is more than just the absence of self-respect. Julia can not respect anyone who is as unlovable as she seems to be. She can not love herself or allow anyone to love her until she identifies and removes her self-anger and her self-contempt. Her discouragement has rubbed off on those self-respecting candidates who might have made her happy. In their absence, she must content herself with men who are unworthy of her and also unable to love her because they do not love (respect) themselves. She finds herself trapped in an impasse: The men she wants she doesn’t get; the men she gets she doesn’t want!” She marries someone because he asks her. Their relationship cannot be happy because two such unself-respecting people are negatively compatible. They can only fulfill each other’s negative expectations.
A person like Julia, given her attitude that she is “unlovable,” must find her own special way of moving through life:
1.In her discouragement, she may withdraw into meanness and isolation.
2.She may marry an unloving man who will see to it that she doesn’t get any “undeserved” love.
3.She will take out her unhappiness on her daughter, thus insuring an unbroken cycle of misery leading to misery.
4.She may spend her life giving selflessly to others, never seeking (or getting) any love in return.
These “choices” represent her solutions to the problem of her unlovability. They will form the backbone of her lifestyle. But they are not conscious choices, at all. They are the mindless derivatives of her negative attitudes from the past.
The antidote to this syndrome is not to “rescue” such persons and shower them with tons of catch-up love. Love is very nice but it is not enough. It is also inconsistent with their expectations of life. They cannot trust it. That is why, in many cases, love is not the answer. These badly wounded individuals need more basic restorative procedures before they can tolerate the shock of positive affection. Some of them resigned themselves to a loveless existence long ago. They have put their human need for love and affection on the back burner. They have sealed it off as unfulfillable so it won’t hurt so much every day of their lives. But the pain of it is still down there.
Sufferers from this syndrome must be rebuilt from the ground up. First, they must be given an identity as a person in their own right, which is what they had before some mindless, unloving grown-up took it away from them. Second, the individual must be helped to feel that, as a worthwhile person with an identity of her very own, she “deserves” to be loved after all. Her resistance to such a notion: must be overcome. She has felt “guilty,” worthless, and inferior all her life. These negative attributes preclude the feeling that she is lovable or deserves to be loved. If these attributes are taken from her too abruptly, she won’t know who she is.
Third, the individual must be helped on the long, painful journey towards loving (respecting) herself, a concept that has, so far, been entirely foreign to her experience and her lifestyle. How can she love someone a mother couldn’t even love? It would be an act of disloyalty to do so. It would defile her mother’s memory! It would be a crime and she would feel guilty. Until she replaces these mistaken attitudes in the right way, she will not be able to relieve her painful, joy-killing guilt. There are many such impediments on the road to positive self-regard.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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