Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fear of Being "Othered:" Diagnoses and Loss of Privilege

We live in a time when more and more kids and adults are being "diagnosed," with behavioral, neuropsychological or mental health "issues." While it is hard enough to live in this world with whatever issues we are facing that lead to a diagnosis, the diagnosis itself creates a whole new hellish world of its own: one of being "othered," and therefore losing respect and privilege that comes with being "normal" or one of the masses. Many people who experience behavioral, neuropsychological or mental health issues rightly fear the diagnoses and labels that are given to their challenges and experiences, and the stigma that comes with them. The very fact that we enter the world of "disability" or the equally stigmatized euphemism "special needs," takes us down countless rungs on the ladder of privilege. Career doors that our talents could open for us are slammed shut, sight unseen. Strangers judge us without taking the time to get to know us. Other people run the other way as we become the dark mirror of what everyone fears might happen to them or someone in their family. After all, being on "the spectrum, " having behavior or mental health issues, seems to diminish our personhood in the eyes of our human eat human society. If racism and sexism were issues of much of the 20th century, all the other ways we reduce or "other" those who struggle with neuropsychological, behavioral or mental health issues are issues of our current times. Truthfully, ALL of us are unique beings and have "special" needs. It's just that some special gets held in high esteem and other special gets labelled as "crazy," "sick" or even just "different." Writer Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg notes, "Both autism and mental health discourses in this country are extremely pathologizing and destructive. It is hard to believe the change in ways in which the world looks at someone pre- and post-diagnosis. The loss of 'normalcy' privilege, of respect, of a certain kind of cultural authority are really mind-boggling. You might be the same person you always were, but once you lose the label of 'normalcy,' a great many other things change." As a person with an issue approaches the terrifying process of evaluation and diagnosis, the fear and resistance to both are totally founded in the reality of the impact of such evaluation. The person needs support against the way society stigmatizes them (and all of us). A diagnosis can be a source of information and self-awareness, but that is a much harder frame to find and internalize when the outside world rarely gives that message. Cohen-Rottenberg also warns us to be wary of the experts we are told to put our faith in. They may do well-intentioned work, but rarely know what they are working on from the inside out. As I have been searching for resources for working with Aspergers, there seem to be a lot more resources to help younger kids succeed in school or for people to get medication, than to deal with the human, social, emotional and spiritual issues of being wired differently. Our medical system separates neuropsychological issues from mental health issues, when often they are inter-related and inseparable. This makes getting any kind of integrated care virtually impossible. The short-term nature of hospitalization and care, with an emphasis on moving the body because it is expensive to "warehouse" or "babysit" a person in a crisis, leads to never truly understanding the human being in the crisis, and never providing a context for long-term care that can truly help a person. Forced medication with needles and straight jackets is traumatizing. Yet, this is the norm for how to treat people in psychiatric crisis. If someone is scared to death of the treatment, they are beaten into submission or put out on the street. If the medication helps stabilize the crisis, then there is some redeeming value in this treatment. However, we somehow miss the heart of the matter and too often populate our system with robots, not compassionate care. I do not yet have answers of how to build a large and deep enough village to make a dent in the brokenness of our health care system or to try to educate the masses and transform stigma into understanding. I am just more and more clear as I journey through hell, that SOMETHING needs to be done.

Anxiety and Abandonment

Have you ever experienced the "push me-pull you" dance in close relationships? Once "new relationship energy" has dissipated, do you find yourself getting close to someone, only to find them pulling away. Or have you been on the other side of this see saw, finding yourself distancing as a person you care about has come in close, perhaps too close for comfort? Most all of us crave intimacy, but it can also be a scary proposition. Relationship experts Calista Luminaire and Lion Goodman write, "Anxiety is the uncomfortable body sensation associated with fear, uncertainty, instability or feeling unsafe...When infants are uncomfortable or afraid, they cry out, expressing their need to be cared for. If their needs are not attended to, they feel anxious." They note that in adults, the feeling of anxiety has its roots in the same primal part of the brain. They write, "Anxiety is a subconscious rattling of the nervous system signaling, 'I need care now!' If you're not certain whether you'll be care for, you feel upset or nervous.'" If when you are scared, you are responded to with love and care, you will feel safe, and your anxiety will "melt away." If your partner has a negative response, including criticism, judgment, rejection or withdrawal, your anxiety will quickly escalate into the red zone. Your primal fear of abandonment button will be triggered, and you may experience the same kind of fight or flight response that comes when something is a threat to your survival. Your partner, who is having their own parallel red zone response, then distances further, and the two of you descend seemingly separately, but actually together, into a downward spiral. Somehow, instead of being two people dancing on an equal playing field, one person has become the "distanced"and the other person has become the "pursuer." Both roles feel pretty horrible, and relationship breaks down. The distancer feels overwhelmed by the anxiety of the person needing closeness at a very primal level. The pursuer feels unsafe, rejected and abandoned. Becoming aware that this dynamic of anxiety and abandonment is starting to play out in an intimate relationship is the first step in breaking the downward spiral, and helping get your footing back on solid ground. If our primal needs for safety, comfort, reassurance and security had been met when we were small, we would feel safer as we opened our hearts and started to form emotional attachments with other people. But when these primal needs were not met or not met consistency, attachment triggers anxiety and abandonment, with an intensity equivalent to questioning our very survival. Important learnings are: 1. We are all human and many of us have unmet needs around attachment and security. 2. If we can get in touch with our own anxiety around intimacy and attachment, we can start to learn what our own inner child needs to be safe and secure. 3. If we feel frightened of someone else's anxiety or need for closeness, likely our own attachment fractures are coming to the surface to heal and transform. 4. The better able we are to have compassion for the scared, anxious inner part of us, be it the part that is afraid of being abandoned or the part that is afraid of being smothered, the better we can manage our own anxiety, whether we are the pursuer or the distanced. 5. The better we understand ourselves and our reactions, the more compassionate we can be with our partner and their reaction. 6. The better we know what we need, the more able we are to translate it into something doable in the here and now. If you tell someone, "I am feeling anxious and would feel a lot better if you held me for 5 minutes," that is giving them a doable task that can make a difference. It is also a contained task, so the distancer will not feel smothered. Learning the steps of the dance of intimacy takes courage, time and often good coaching. It is well worth the personal growth and relational effort to become skilled at this dance!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Being A Force of Nature

I am grateful that since childhood I have been given the gifts of clarity, groundedness, and the ability to take vision and make it real through action. I have myself in positions of leadership again and again even without intending to land there or trying. Even as an 8th grader, I ended up elected to serve as the class president, despite or perhaps because instead of reading a canned campaign speech, I sat on the edge of the stage and spoke from my heart to everyone in the audience. I have been called "the engine" in numerous groups perhaps for my ability to sustain a strong focus, both for myself and the group or organization, and to find ways to integrate and direct the skills and talents of others in the group towards a common vision over time. Most recently, I have found myself repeatedly called "a force of nature." That term has at times been a compliment but at other times a less than endearing phrase. When another human being marvels at what I can create and sustain from a respectful place, that can be touching. However, when the implication is that another person is scared of me because my power and passion are so strong they fear being swept under by my wave, that saddens and isolates me. When I think of forces of nature, I think of hurricanes, tidal waves, earthquakes and the like. Each one is very powerful. Each one can be transformative to the landscape it touches. Each one can be dangerous and scary. And in most cases, we need to step away and protect ourselves when one is on the horizon. Might there be gentler and more connective images to evoke? Is the gentle light of the sun a force of nature? Is the soft sand that can caress your feet as you walk on the beach a force of nature? Are the stars in the sky and the beautiful formations they form a force of nature too? Can a force of nature work with you and for you, rather than against you? If each of us connect with our hearts, and live from that place, do we become benevolent forces for good in this world? If we treat one another with kindness and respect every day, do we transform the world for the good with our love? Can being a force of nature be a symbol of the good that is possible in this world when we embrace our power, rather than a source of fear or not good enoughness when we compare ourselves to others who are more embodied and empowered? Might forces of nature join as partners with our forces of nature and work together for the common good? Being a force unite is a whole lot more pleasurable than being a force operating all alone on the skinny branches of life. Might there not be a whole lot more wind underneath our wings if we use our heart power to help one another fly? What if forces like care and kindness helped us feel safer and be more real with one another, rather than batting down the hatches to defend ourselves from something that might touch us in places we have locked away? I would rather be a force of nature than some marketer's creation in a chemistry lab. What if we all find ways to be the natural forces we are capable of being and joining together to create a healthier happier world? That is a landscape I can exhale in!

We Need Each Other: Kindness, Bonding and Barriers to Bonding

Our world can be cold and cruel, and as we increasingly reach out and touch our handheld devices, instead of one another, it is easy to become numb to our basic human need to connect and feel connected emotionally, physically and in real time, to ourselves and others. Dr. Bruce Perry, who specializes in the impact of childhood trauma on our ability to bond and form healthy relationships talks about "attachment," our capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional relationships. Dr Perry believes that at our core, human beings are relational creatures. In fact, he believes the very nature of humanity arises from relationships. Almost everything we learn about what it means to be a human being is learned in a relational context including: how we impact one another through our words, thoughts and actions, how we think and feel and how we express or communicate our thoughts and feelings, how to respond or behave in a given situation and how the world works, both in small details and bigger picture ways. It is both natural and healthy to form special bonds with other people, "attachment bonds." Dr Perry describes four unique properties of an attachment bond: 1. an enduring bond with a special person, 2. involves comfort, soothing and pleasure, 3. loss or threat of loss of the special person evokes intense distress and 4. there is security and safety in the context of this relationship. Most all human beings have the innate, genetic capacity to experience attachment relationships: relationships which develop and stand on a special connection or bond. When as infants we are treated with attentive, responsive and loving caregiving, our genetic potential for attachment and bonding is expressed. When we lack the attentive, responsive and loving caregiving we truly need, our ability to bond or attach can be adversely impacted. This impacts the ability of the child to mature emotionally and socially and develop the critical attachment bonds with self and other needed to be healthy, happy and successful navigating the larger world. Dr Price notes that by compartmentalizing our world, we've decreased the opportunities to have relationships. Initially, if we are socialized to expect bonding, attachment and relational connection, we will feel something very deep missing if we live in a non-relational compartmentalized world. The lack of development of our capacity to attach or bond creates a very deep emptiness inside, palpable in our hearts and guts. However, if we continue to live with this void going unfilled and with our needs for connection going unmet, we eventually numb out to ourselves and our needs and give up hope that our needs will ever be met. This numbing out creates a feral state of emotional and relational being, where we shy away from deep or warm emotional contact and bonding, and try to do it all alone. When we are in this feral state, even if someone approaches us with kindness, we feel more the intensity of the outreach than the valence of the emotional energy that accompanies the outreach. We learn to protect ourselves from the pain of not getting our needs met in the past by keeping up a wall to feel or experience our needs in the here and now. And this protection turns into a fortress that keeps danger out, by also prevents love and care to get in. While we can survive living in our individual fortresses, in time, the heart grows weary and lonely. We need each other. We are not meant to live lives of quiet desperation, each on our own exotic or simple path, independent of other people. When we have healthy and abundance attachment experiences early in life, we can welcome and embrace love, kindness and the bond that grows from both, later in life. If we have not had the safety, love, constancy or care to attach, we may run from true love and kindness, that way a a fly or an animal turns away from the light. We learn to live in a numb, compartmentalized, not entirely human world, where relationships and connection are at the bottom of the list. In this sense, to compartmentalize our lives means to emotionally, physically and spiritually starve. Our fundamental need for interconnection can not be met when we lives our lives of quiet desperation so quietly that no one really knows just how quiet and desperate things have become. When we are this isolated we die a small death every day, even if we think we are tough or strategic or better than others whose lives just don't measure up to our inner judge. We need to be able to soothe our defenses, and regain safety from love, kindness and bonding, so we get the core emotional, relational, physical and spiritual nutrients we need to learn, grow and survive. Loving touch, kind words, honest truth, and emotional constancy should be balms for the soul, not theoretical concepts. As the beautiful gospel song by Hezekiah Walker, "I Need You to Survive" says, "I need you. You need me." We need each other to survive, and surely to live and thrive.