Sunday, September 30, 2012

The borderline society and its discontents part II - Arrested development

The last post set up the following ideas: that at times in our past certain types of mental distress have been seen as appropriate reactions to the stresses and demands of the times, and that all of society may be mentally ill, in which case we may need to look carefully at the individual's place within it and work out what is problematic and what may be actually quite healthy.

If society has a mind, and there is something wrong with it, the models i found most useful here turned out to be staged models of individual development. The classic one is  Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Maslow and Erikson also used staged models of the human life cycle.  In all of the models i looked at there is a normative progression from the infantile ego to the mature involement of the person in the whole of society. Some models even hint at a more universal stage where the person understands connections not just to others in society but to the planet or the spiritual realm. Of course all of these models are roundly critiqued and with some justification, especially by earlier feminist thinkers. It is no coincidence that the features of a mature individual in the global North are the stereotypical features of a  European man. Aside from these useful critiques, i am interested in the general trend of development, from smaller egocentric world to the bigger concerns of family and work, to the care of others and eventually the whole world. i was interested too in the views of both Kohlberg and Maslow that many people do not develop fully; they get stuck at a kind of middle level where they can see the needs of others around them but they do not progress beyong their immediate concerns. Kohlberg could find nobody who acted consistently at the highest level. Is this our problem? Do we all get stuck at a level around, perhaps, late adolescence?

There are lots of  views on the issue of prolonged adolescence. Prolonged adolescence was first noticed academically as far back as the 1920's. An article from that time observed that young men of privilege were beginning to shy off adult reponsibilties until later in their lives. Now, we observe that young people are more self absorbed, stay home longer, take less financial repsonsibility and have a stronger sense of their own entitlement. We have a stereotype of the 35 year old petrol head who hates the parents he lives with, is in and out of menial work, and spends all his money on toys. It wasn't like that in my day, we say. We left home at 17 and never looked back. Our kids are buoyed up, told they're special, lack for nothing except good discipline, we say. No wonder they can't cope.

Someone with a deeper view of the whole arrested development thing is Bill Plotkin. He wrote a book called Soulcraft where he developed his own model of development. As usual his stages move from an infantile ego stage to further and wider exploration of the world of family, nature, intimate relationships, community service and eventually an integrated wisdom as we give back to the universe and prepare for the next great step. He also sees this model working on three levels of ego, soul and nature. This is his beginning point:

'Over the past two hundred years, industrial civilization has been relentlessly undermining Earth's chemistry, water cycles, atmosphere, soils, oceans and thermal balance. Plainly said, we have been shutting down the major life systems of our plantet. Compunding the ecological crisis are decaying economies, ethnic and class conflict, and worldwide warfare. Entwined with, and perhaps underlying, these devastation are epidemic failures in individual human development.

'True adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement in Western and Westernized societies, and genuine elderhood nearly nonexistent. Interwoven with arresed personl development, and perhaps inseperable from it, our everyday lives and drifted vast distances from our species' original intimacy with the natural workd and from our own uniquly individual natures, our souls...

' My beginning premise is that a more mature human society requires more mature human individulas...My second premise is that nature, (including our own deepr nature, soul) has always provided and still provides the best template for human maturation...A third premise is that every human being has a unique and mystical relationship to the wild world and that the conscious discovery and cultivation of that relationship is at the core of true adulthood. In contemporary society, we think of maturity simply in terms of hard work and practical responsibilities. I believe, in contrast, that true adulthood is rooted in transperonal experience... This mystical affiliation is the very core of maturity, and it is precisely what mainstream Western society has overlooked - or actively suppressed and expelled.'*

Plotkin goes on to advocate for rites of passage and for a very intimate involvement with nature in order to work ourselves past the adolescent stages. He is quite radical on this. We need real rites that involve descent into true life threatening spiritual darkness. We need to get beyond playing with this stuff.  On adolescence he says:

'Arrested personal growth serves industrial "growth". By suppressing the nature dimension of human development...industrial grown society engenders an immature citizenry unable to imagine a life beyond consumerism and soul-suppressing jobs.'

With regard to Borderline Personality Disorder, a lot of work has done on early attachments and early failures to mentalise. For example, at the age of about four a child develops theory of mind. At that age she learns two vital things - that people cannot read her mind, and that she can understand the feelings of others (empathy). If these theory of mind processes are interrupted the emotional development can be thwarted. For many of us, we notice that when we are desperately, self destructively upset we regress to about four years old. We fail to empathise. We think others should instantly understand us. We don't get it when they can't read out minds and yet we think we can read theirs. Sometimes great distress can push us back to an infant state - we are not yet capable of words in that state, we can only cry or throw things. This is all fairly well understood.

Well and good, but I think it is no coincidence that personality disorders emerge in adolescence. i think lots of us get stuck there. So, what is it like being an adolescent mind in an adolescent society, and what do we need?

The lacunae are all his except the last one. A larger excerpt from the book is on his website.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The borderline society and its discontents

This post is taken from a talk i once gave. The notes were only on paper and have been lost in the earthquake. So you may need to imagine that these ideas once had some research behind them, and there were once footnotes and a bibliography all proper-like. Moreover, this topic will take two posts to cover. i don't like long posts on blogs and i do want a good go at a difficult subject.

Borderline personality disorder is a mental disorder on Axis II of the DSM IV, which means it is not considered to be a 'brain disease' like schizoprenia, but more of a problematic way of being which has been learned in early life. The features of borderline personality disorder are emotional instability, a sense of emptiness and a shaky or non existent sense of self, self destructive behaviour, addictions, intense and unstable relationships, and sometimes transient psychotic breaks. Naturally these features are all controversial and as a label it is often considered pejorative, both by people diagnosed with it and by clinicians. i don't consider it pejorative.(You will find out why.) Originally it was called borderline because it was thought to straddle the border between psychosis and neurosis, and i think that is a useful framing.

i state here that i am agnostic about mental illness, but i am not agnostic about suffering, and some of the borderlines i know are those who suffer the most. This keeps me interested.

The question is this: Is BPD a feature of modernity? Does it come only from the affluent self indulgent upbringing we tend to criticise (mothers often get the blame)? Are there borderlines in other cultures where poverty and war keep our psychological selves at survival level? What happened to borderlines in the past? Were there any?

i start with a story about the past, about my mother. i found these things out only as she was dying and my relatives began to talk to me with uncharacteristic frankness.

My mother's early attachments were very compromised, and her late teens and early twenties were characterised by suicidality and problems with managing stress. A psychiatrist gave the family some surprisingly practical and rather un-psychiatric advice. He said they could not have her on suicide watch all the time and if she wanted to wander around the town in the middle of the night making suicidal threats they just had to let her get over herself. So they did. Then one morning she set out for work, fell into some sort of fugue state, drove her motorbike all day into the country and collapsed in a field. She was found by a farmer and put in hospital. This alarmed my father, to whom she was engaged, but he perservered with the marriage and really he held her emotionally until he died. She had the stability and containment in him that she could not find in herself.

When i heard about this, some things i knew about my mother gained context, and i was relieved and able to feel compassion. She was a borderline, by today's standards. She was creative and witty and hot tempered and forgiving and spiritually adventurous and occasionally wise, and she was a borderline. We all know one and may even be one.

So, if there were borderlines back then, what about further back? And how did they do in the world around them?

This is my hunch. Up until late last century most of the world was rural. People have lived in villages up until even one generation ago. Our ancestors lived in small circumstances, often not travelling, surrounded their entire lives by the same people. We married our neighbours and worked and played with them, and our immediate social circles involved our extended families.Work would have been often physically hard and governed by externals such as the seasons and the markets.  Borderlines are high maintenance. With borderlines there is always drama, always intensity and behaviour that takes attention. There is a need to be cared for that can never be fulfilled. i suspect this would not have been tolerated in village settings. And relationships would have been more stable simply because there was less choice. There are fewer people to fall in and out with, and if you fall right out of your village there is nowhere else to go. Ostracism could mean poverty or even death. For borderlines to survive in their borderline-ness, there needs to be social mobility and a large social context such as in a city. So while i suspect there were always emotionally high maintenance, dramatic, difficult people around, the conformity of social expectations and the grind of work and care possibly suppressed the more extreme expressions of BPD.

However, alongside our ancestors were urbanised, wealthy, educated people who took on the thinking of the day. i wondered how history has viewed those who struggled with negative and self destructive thoughts and feelings. There has at different times been a socially sanctioned form of psychological suffering, at least among the highly literate classes. In the early modern period, it was fashionable to adopt a debauched and self destructive life style in order to express dissatisfaction with the increasingly materialistic and scientific thinking that was becoming prevalent. It seemed an appropriate protest to be miserable. Later, the Sturm und Drang period of German romanticism reached its tragedarian apogee in Goethe's partly autobiographical The Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther is in love with an unavailable young woman and kills himself. The book was seen as sparking a rash of suicides among impressionable young men, and caused the kind of minor moral panic we saw with bands like Joy Division in the 1980's and the Emo phenomenon of 2005. In the nineteenth century a fashionable London suicide club was formed and its members promised to kill themselves before they turned 30 or went bald, whichever came sooner. The stated aim of the club was to provide consternation to clergy and pharmacists. Again, ennui and disaffection with societal norms seemed the best response to the psychological exigencies of the age.

This is all less superficial and hipster than it sounds. For some, life hurts. Suffering is not to be overcome or learned through. It is the fulcrum of personal experience and meaning. Sometimes you can spark and wire and catch fire with it.  Sometimes it is just too hard to manage the shit storm in your head. It can change in thirty seconds. Thirty seconds between the party and the abyss. Me, i don't have the courage for it.

Since BPD-type phenomena and the romance around suffering and death seemed to be so embedded in the thinking of the times, i thought about our own society and what about it might be problematic.

Some thinkers have gone as far as diagnosing the whole of society. Christopher Lasch wrote about the narcissistic society, where he emphasised the desperate shallowness of the narcissist rather than the arrogance. Anne Wilson Schaeff less convincingly diagnosed the whole of society as codependent. Freud, in his book Civilisation and its Discontents (from which the title of this post is gleefully pinched), talks about how the whole of society is unable to resolve the tensions between thanatos and eros and thus languishes in inevitable sickness.

So for my next thought - is our society sick? And how? And how can we tell if an individual is mentally ill if maybe the whole of society is?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

My giraffe hat

Recently my daughter and i travelled to Dunedin to go to the ballet. It was Cinderella, after the Frederick Ashton version, and nicely done. There were absolutely rows of little girls who comprised whole ballet classes, and they were all called Lily and Brooke and they whispered and shushed each other all through. The Regent Theatre in Dunedin is one of those marvellous Victorian neo-Baroque affairs. When i lived in Dunedin i was a student, and i never went to the theatre. We were all way too broke.

i had a rotten cold. The next morning, after a chilly night in a cabin, i awoke and prepared for some sightseeing around Dunedin and the trip back. i took a medium sized swing of Robitussin because i have always had a fairly impressionistic approach to dosing, (there are small, medium and large swigs. On reflection, this may have been a large swig) and at about 11 am i confessed to my daughter i was probably not capable of driving home.

Nasty stuff, Robitussin - if you drink about eight bottles you might just get psychotic. i was nowhere near that but i did spend the next few hours wandering around staring intently at walls, drinking coffee, and buying unusual things. Eventually i recovered enough of my senses to drive, and just as well because we struck rain and hail and fog and darkness on the way home and of course arrived far later than expected with no decent explanation.

One of the unusual purchases was my giraffe hat. Here are pictures of my giraffe hat.

Giraffes are pretty trippy things anyway. One cannot fail to appreciate giraffes. This hat is hand made in wool and polar fleece and it comes from Nepal. It is very warm. i look completely ridiculous in it and of course being very short in stature my giraffe hat is a major ironic statement.

It is impossible not to smile while wearing my giraffe hat.

i have before talked about the malleability of states of consciousness, and there are some cool legal ways of playing with this. Theatresports people know about them and use them for warmups and getting into roles. A good first exercise is to walk quickly around the room pointing at objects and naming them by wrong names in a loud voice. So you see a table and shout the word 'lamp' for example. Of course it is best done in a group, and by the end of it you feel a bit buzzy and light headed. Another exercise is to pretend you are mingling at a party. Mingle mingle blah. For five minutes while mingling normally in every other respect, you keep your eyes narrowed. You find yourself feeling silghtly low in mood, a bit suspicious perhaps, a bit shut down. The next five minutes you spend mingling normally in every other respect, except you keep your eyes very wide open. Now you feel awake, chatty, literally wide eyed, and your voice becomes louder. Simply by narrowing or widening your eyes you can change how you see the world in ways you can easily experience consciously and comparably.

Thus it is impossible not to smile while wearing my giraffe hat, except if i forget i am wearing it. Wearing it around the hospital i move faster and even take on a little giraffe gallop down the corridors. i give my thanks to the god of Ridiculouslyosityness, and take fine note of the wonderful complexities of my funny old brain.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

ConsumerLand Inc

In our advertising-swamped world one billboard stood out near my house. i will describe it because i neglected to photograph it and now it has gone.

It showed a head and shoulder shot of a girl of European descent aged about eleven. Her hair was artfully foiled and tousled and she wore a fashionable fedora. She gazed very directly into the camera with steady blue eyes. John Berger in his interesting Marxist critique of art history Ways of Seeing (a bit old now but still valuable) talks about women in art traditionally having nothing but themselves to show.  Men show power or possessions (including women) or ideas or activities. Even adorned or surrounded, women are shown showing themselves. This billboard was just that - head and shoulders, more or less consciously, she shows us herself.

The caption said 'Have the last word before she gets to the mall.' The logo underneath was for OMANZ.

What was OMANZ, i wondered. Could it be an organisation of men, perhaps fathers, who were concerned about the influences on girls? So i googled it, as you do, and OMANZ turned out to be the Outdoor Media Association of New Zealand. In other words, the billboard was advertising itself.  If you google OMANZ you will see the billboard. It suggests the preeminent piece of influence this little tweeny absorbs before she enters ConsumerLand Inc should be yours, dear advertiser.

There has been a lot said about the tween market, especially girls, and especially about its relatively recent creation and its enormous influence. i don't need to go there really. The billboard just assumes all that is prior and public knowledge, and that it is value neutral. Someone is going to be selling this poppet some kinda shit, it might as well be you. Also assumed is that she is going to be buying it. That she has money, for a start, or can influence someone who has money. And that she is a sort of consumerist empty vessel, conventionally attractive, fashionably presented, there for the taking. She has nothing but herself to show you, dear advertiser. So go ahead and take her.

If this is beginning to sound analagous to sexual abuse, well, let it.

What i want, for my daughter, for the daughters of this sometimes wretched world, right now, today, is this. If she has to go to the God damned maul (sic) for her socialisation and her developmental education and her little rites of passage, let the last word before she gets there be from someone who loves her.