bring me the pill for infelicitous birth

This was going to be mainly about what is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but now since two of its very close relations–abuse, especially sexual abuse, and narcotics addiction–have entered the internet news cycle for which I am probably way too late at this point but I am actively ignoring myself as I offer myself rationalizations not to write or not to put it anywhere anyone will find it if I do write something and so because virtually anyone with a decent-sized megaphone with which to address addiction gets it completely and horribly wrong just as those speaking about trauma and PTSD also get it completely and horribly wrong I found myself with more to say than what I started out thinking I was going to say.

Neither of them, for instance–PTSD nor addiction–are diseases.

psych drugs and warning labels in psychedelic blue and hot pink

take this medication with resignation and bare faith

We would like them to be. For a million reasons but mostly nobody has to address anything they themselves might be doing to exacerbate a problem if that problem can be relegated to medical management and pinned on some vague notion of inherited disorder for which we have almost no empirical evidence that is not deeply founded in the sort of already-given interpretation my culture demands regarding health and disease, order and disorder, normality and perversity, function and dysfunction, productivity and loss, and–this list is endless as these lists always are. The point is still that blaming (genetic, medical, physiological) fate is slightly less odious than blaming those suffering under that fate but still too easy when problems are manifestly rooted in the specific cultures in which they appear, and in very complex ways that might cause discomfort to many who consider themselves beyond reproach because they did not really enjoy heroin that one time they tried it or maybe the painkillers they occasionally need to take are effective for the bluntest of physiological pain but no more than that and so they have managed so far to avoid becoming junkies of any kind.

Lucky them.

Three things:

In North American cultures, addicts of what are called hard drugs are almost always survivors of trauma–trauma severe enough that anesthesia from life itself can become the only thing that makes life bearable. And so addiction is what you do if you cannot kill yourself on a punctual, finalized schedule.

I cannot put it any more concisely than that. Probably one could investigate neural pathways and what sorts of environmental variables affect endorphin production in some cases or dopamine in others and oxytocin in other others and probably some indefinite several of neurological signaling agents we do not know very well yet. But my experience tells me that when a drug can simulate family in the absence of, you know, actual family, it answers a primal need that will not be denied once it finds what it thinks it is seeking. The idea of “will power” is laughable in the face of this sort of need, but my confused critique of whatever it is we call will–I haven’t a clue, honestly: I cannot find will in any of my personal faculties and would not recognize it if it were there staring me in the face and enacting things all on its own power as I squinted in incomprehension because where on earth did it find this original power because I have never come across any and believe me I have looked everywhere–ok well besides that much critique I am leaving the rest for later.

This will probably not make sense to you either: addiction can signal a tenacious sense of self-preservation and something like an inextinguishable hope: whatever and wherever my place is here on the planet I am doing all I can to stay here and make it into a dwelling place familiar enough not to set off serial panic even if my life will turn out to be nothing much else beyond surviving my own murder/suicide. The junkie shooting up is refusing to die even while taking into her body what may be that one bad hit. The chamber with the bullet. The all it took. The we knew this day was coming.

Sometimes that day never arrives. Contrary to legend, addiction is no surer a predictor of death than any other dangerous and desperate bid to stay alive long enough to give sunrise one more opportunity to justify its arrival.

Not entirely unlike life itself: a mortality rate of one hundred percent. Not one of us has survived it yet. I know some of you believe that to be untrue but the evidence is overwhelmingly pessimistic on this one.

That was just one thing.

Here are the others or some others or something:

somethings, I mean:

In the cultures I might call my own, PTSD is usually figured solely as either a soldier’s burden or the occasional outcome of large-scale disasters. Of those I have spoken to who are diagnosed or diagnosable with PTSD, I have known a handful of soldiers and maybe one or two survivors of the flood fire famine sort of disaster that we recognize as disaster. I have not counted up the rest but that is mainly because they are one of those vast majorities that are really hard for one person to count especially when every other day I meet another one of us. The rest of us are survivors of the more private disasters of childhood abuse, domestic abuse, andor rape.

“andor” because abuse is almost always sexual at some point whether it is primarily sexual or also physical, emotional, spiritual, or some terrible cycle of All Of The Above and so abuse and rape often as not are synonymous and even simultaneous. Other times they happen in succession. And maybe some more abuse later on because you were taught that it is part of the natural order and so it just looks like another day to you.

That’s two things. Here is where I stick my neck out:

The medicalization of addiction and of many conditions called mental illness, including PTSD, functions in part to divert public attention or maybe the public itself is diverting its own attention this way which seems a more faithful description but we whoever we are we cite models of disease for this among other things in order not to have to address our own complicity in one or another tradition of abuse–traditions which precipitate what is called mental illness and what is called addiction. Repeatedly. Predictably.

Those traditions of abuse are endemic to that culture or cultures with which I am most intimately familiar because they permeate me. Or us.

This is something I proclaim as a strong strong hunch and one for which the research necessary to show it conclusively is more than a single person could do or at least if I were the only single person doing it it could take a very long time and not just because I spend most days tending to some PTSD-related intermission or another. Statistics on childhood abuse, for instance: completely unreliable, and by the researchers’ own admission almost every time I look up another batch of them, almost certainly leading to gross underestimation of the extent to which the practices addressed in their studies are accepted as normal or at least tolerable by the participants/respondents.

Here is an interesting study on public perception of child abuse in the US (pdf file).

The Framework Institute has done other research on child abuse as well, all of it interesting.

That is almost all I have to say right now. But the other day I ran across another glib homage to the power of modern medicine or that is the power of the myth of modern medicine and it was so cheerfully reductive that I wanted almost to curse the very idea of research because no animal who forces itself to be as obtusely optimistic as we have seemingly become should be trusted with the care and feeding of a whole planet based on whatever knowledge it can produce for itself.

The most recent upsurge in despair followed this which is how this all got started insofar as my deciding to write something down goes:

A comprehensive PTSD drug would be the holy grail, of course.

the holy grail would be

a culture that does not deliberately impose multiple traumas on its offspring over and above the unpredictable and inevitable injuries that are standard-issue living.

the holy grail would be

a culture that does not use shame and silencing as its primary methods of discipline when overt violence seems unacceptable if that ever happens to happen.

the holy grail would be

directing some of the obsessive energy devoted to identifying the neurological and genetic causes of psychiatric disorders toward identifying and eradicating the cultural, social, and familial causes of those myriad physiological changes that so often result in syndromes we call mental illness. because we cannot bear the possibility that we may ourselves be the primary vectors of this sort of pathology we look for isolated, simple biochemical interactions where nothing isolated or simple ever takes place: in and among the bodies of complicatedly social, intelligent, and sensitive animals.

the holy grail would be

examining cultural assumptions about family that chronically make children open targets of abuse while simultaneously depriving them of the security they would need to be able to talk about what was happening to them without fear of retaliation for telling the truth.

the holy grail would be

asking ourselves with unhesitating honesty why our culture predicates itself on scarcity, competition, conformity and exclusion, deprivation, and a general hostility toward life as it occurs on Earth as the pillars of social, spiritual, and economic order and security. we have chosen homelessness as the guarantor of stability and I mean that both literally and metaphorically although the metaphor is itself as real as any shopping cart and tarpaulin city.

so I said this is not finished so I said post it anyway so I said ok I hope you know what you are doing so I said of course I do

I do not even know where to begin.

I have begun. I have begun and I have begun.

So many starts that by now fifty thousand or so of me are deeply involved with their chosen labyrinths each one as necessary and urgent as all of the others combined which presents a logical difficulty but not a phenomenological one.

I cannot wait.

I cannot hold my tongue.
I cannot hold my water.
I cannot hold my liquor.

I cannot hold myself to any promises this I only learned in the last couple of years. Apologies if I promised you anything before approximately now. I would give you the world but I probably would not be able to complete the process of packaging it and printing out the postage and taking it to wherever it needed to be taken in order for you to receive it in this lifetime. It is not a matter of will or laziness or disregard nor have I yet been able to articulate what it is a matter of so far I can only watch myself spend hours trying to choose a direction to move in and being unable to intervene in the thought process that takes each direction up to look at its pros and cons and trace its dependencies over and over again until I run up against the hitch enough times to recognize it for what it is at which point I must deliberate how to resolve the hitch which usually requires much the same process in a slightly different direction and this can repeat indefinitely until if I find the lynchpin before five years have gone by I congratulate myself for a job well done.

Because it is a job well done even when the original job gets lost in the trash heap of what I could not do at the time some months or years prior to that.

We learn to heap praise upon ourselves for brushing our teeth.
For putting on shoes.
For washing something. Anything.
For walking down the street without panic on one side or exhaustion on another.
This is not me complaining. This is me carrying water and chopping wood.
This is life. This is what life is.
Trimming your nails without shame.
Can you do that.
Looking in the mirror without averting your eyes.
Can you do that.
Hercules himself would have collapsed in the effort.
Which does not make me a hero.

I cannot find the right words at the right time.
I cannot allow myself to speak even and especially when I have finally worked out with exquisite detail and exacting turns of phrase to evoke precisely the right scene with precisely the right amount of pathos supported by clear but not overbearing arguments to show that I mean no harm and I do not wish to win or that is I do not wish to be able to defeat or conquer even when I cannot do without what are called fighting words because the occasion calls for them and I cannot ignore that call.

There is no way as it turns out to keep everyone comforted or comfortable and so there is no way to guarantee my own safety even when the last word for me must be to stay out of harm’s way. Nothing I say (saw was the typo that snuck out before I caught it) can be without painful consequences because it is the issue of painful consequences which were the issue of painful consequences: the terror of generations terrorized into clinging to and defending to their deaths the most ruthless most bare and absurd imposters of comfort or calm or peace because comfort and calm and peace themselves fled so long ago none of us can remember when they last showed up as anything other than violation under gag orders.

It is not only that one side of my family is abusive without realizing it except when it looks into the windows of a sister or brother to see someone misbehaving and then all is consternation and confusion. That I recall the hushed conversations and puzzlement over why this kid was being bad or why this one here was showing signs of being unable to maintain even through grit teeth the brittle naivete that had brought us along so far to wherever it i was we had got which was itself widely known to be completely unknown. Nor is this the whole story because I am only here where I am and was only there where I was and only saw and heard what I saw and heard and only remember what I remember if that much.

It is not only that. But it is that. Just not only that.

It is not only that another side of my family has successfully ridden its own stoicism all the way to the underworld enough times that at this point there is practically nobody left to answer to. All of us amiable ciphers to all of us or maybe that was just me. In any case we the survivors are of a loose knit to put it in amiable terms. There would be other stories to be told but the storytellers are dying out.

It is not only that. But it is that. Just not only that.

It is not only that I live in a culture that enshrines violent domination exploitation and competition over its naturalized delusions of unending lack as not just necessary because hey life is hard toughen up but because we actually believe these things to be divine givens, moral imperatives, and the most perfect and just ideals ever conceived by human beings. To judge our own lives as miserable and in need of salvation immediately upon leaving the womb: the fetus is innocent and even sacred until it crowns into original sin and a personal responsibility so abject as to suggest that all of history is reset at every moment of birth in turn starting over and over and over and over until we are not only each our own island but each our own universe with time and space immaculate for that instant before the mark of Cain sets us against all the others vying for the reassurance that ours and only ours is the righteous and sanctioned path. Even the irreligious believe this religiously.

It is not only that. But it is that. Just not only that.

uncle sam? is that you?

Context matters:

I live in the US.
I receive Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, because I am disabled.
I do not receive Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI. I will explain why that is.
The Social Security Administration administers both SSI and SSDI, determining eligibility and overseeing the continuing disbursement of benefits.

please sirs and mesdames may I have another:

Less than a month ago I received a letter from the Social Security Administration saying that I needed to come in and apply for SSDI to make sure I was not eligible for it, because if I were, that would affect my SSI payments. They had scheduled me an appointment. The day I got the letter, the appointment was a week away. It did not contain any other clues as to why SSDI had become an issue in my case.

I did not go to the appointment. I wish this had been a casual oversight; it would have been much less painful that way.

Depression and PTSD can–and usually do at the slightest opportunity–make it extremely difficult for me to keep any sort of engagement on anything like Earth time. It took me six months and three consecutive appointments to finally be able to appear for a CT scan this past spring and summer. Part of the holdup–but by no means all of it–was that it took me several weeks to be able to begin to take a shower. Once started, the shower itself occupied the better part of three days. Well, as far as I was concerned showering was in fact the worst part of those three days. Figures of speech do not always line up exactly the way you want do they.

I should mention that the CT scan was ordered in part to rule out cancer. So you see what it looks like when I am highly interested in getting something done while that something happens also to set off a variety of emotional/physiological disturbances despite my best efforts to remain undisturbed–or sufficiently undisturbed that I can see to the doing of the something. Thus, seeing to it will take a very. very. very. long time. And that is with lots of help, lots of rescheduling, lots of no it’s okay let us know if anything would make it easier. Absent the help and yes this extremely slow response time might be what kills me. Chronic problems are chronic.

So that is an example. To keep an engagement with an entity holding a great deal of power over me entails a great deal of anxiety management, behavior management, cognitive management, and autonomic nervous system management–short of heavy sedation, this last is hit-or-miss at best. These all require very careful planning to prevent, where possible, and manage, where not, unrelated stressors that inevitably pile themselves on in obeisance to the sheer randomness of the universe.

The chances of me being able to keep such an engagement when issued one week in advance without the slightest warning or indication are, practically speaking, just about zero. This is something I have learned I cannot beat out of myself, shame out of myself, berate out of myself, or even softly cajole out of myself. The only way to work around it at all is to proceed slowly, attentively, and without coercion, whether internal or external. You could say I have a hair trigger for coercion. The slightest hint of it and I just, sort of, stop.

In that week’s time leading up to the appointment I was able to: consider emailing my former advocates for advice; notice on their website that they strongly suggest calling instead of emailing if time is short or the need urgent; decide instead to call them; spend a few days trying to move myself to pick up the phone and make the call, without success; ask myself whether I might just email them anyway; reach no conclusion on the email question other than that maybe I was not supposed to do that so I should try one more day to call; figure out for myself why I was finding it so difficult to call them when I had done it before without having to overcome quite this much resistance; realize that I needed to change tactics; and then to–ok, by this time the appointment was three days in the past. I did not make it to the step of finding someone to call Social Security for me to request a later appointment. This would have occurred just after I considered whether or not I could do that without help. I did not get to that step either.

I should probably add that during this time I was also confronted with some bare hint of return of the mental phenomena that Zyprexa had been medicating me against (nominally or presumably or in effect–no idea which) up until just about a year ago, when I had to be taken off the drug after developing tardive dyskinesia. That whole episode is not over yet, but the week with the whirly thoughts turned out ok only it required nearly all of my concentration and energy to ascertain how best to respond to the whirly thoughts and it left me a little jumpy about how the whirly thoughts might respond to my response as time goes on. I did not spend all that much time trying to call for help with the Social Security appointment because there was not all that much time left over. I was also sleeping ten to eleven hours a night but still waking up exhausted.

The next week and a bit more consisted mostly of what now and how fast or how slow should I go and what do you suppose will happen next and I wonder what I need to do about that appointment. While I was looking into all these questions, another letter arrived from Social Security.


Your SSI benefits are being suspended beginning next month because you did not do as the law required, which was to apply for all other benefits for which you might be eligible. You have ten days to file an appeal to keep from interrupting your payments. You can have someone represent you but you should probably get in touch with them very soon because we are not fucking around.

love, your friends at the SSA




[insert here several days of immobile freakout ending with one very short very intense very impromptu surprise extra therapy half-fifty-minutes. no spinning headlines but maybe some black and white noir-psychedelic effects to stand for confusion and distress and then thick cloud cover but for a tiny pinprick of sunlight]

1. I actually did apply for SSDI in 2010. I was determined not eligible because in my entire working life I have not paid enough into the system to be able to get anything back out of it. Have they forgotten? Did something change? I have done no paid work in the last three years and thus have not paid any more taxes of any sort. I will take SSDI if they want to offer, but why is this being held over my head all of a sudden as though I have been neglecting some essential duty for some very long time?

2. I have PTSD from childhood emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse/rape. There simply is no way for me to approach an authoritative entity without fairly involved preparation. Without preparation I am looking at extremely painful and possibly dangerous physiological cascades that among other things dump so much cortisol into my bloodstream so quickly that I can feel it overflowing its well-marked trenches–the ones it has eroded out of my nervous system over the last fifty years and which we are working constantly to fill back in so that my neurons can more easily reconnect in less alarming ways. Sometimes these reactions occur despite our best efforts to stem them, but usually they can be mitigated in some way if we have some time and space to work with them.

Given this–that is, given the nature of my disability–why and how is it ok for the Social Security Administration to send me these kinds of communications? This whole sequence could not be any more restimulating of trauma-produced neurological pathways if it had been planned expressly for the purpose.

And this was their opening move.

3. I don’t even know. I seem to live in some insane unintuitive upsidedown opposite land. Or I got moved here at some point. Which is it and where is the reasonable universe.


not an epilogue because time is weird

Today is Sunday. Two days ago I walked downtown to the office of the organization that helped me apply for SS(D)I the first time around. It looks like they will help me now but I still have to figure out how best to light a fire under someone in a very short time when the most I personally can do is say help. um. help? help. With just about that much volume.

Somewhere not too long ago I read something about how the fight/flight/freeze response can become “stuck” in PTSD and that many abused as children learned to freeze and so this is where they get stuck as adults and if this is so then it explains a number of things about weeks like the one that just passed.

I have people. I said to one of them yesterday: I guess I am lucky. And it is true. I am. On my own, I would already be on the street.


To be clear, I am complaining here about how the Social Security Administration is making my life unnecessarily stressful by thoughtlessly taking advantage of my disability to try to shake me off their rolls. But I want also to emphasize that I am lucky because I have help. I will be ok, one way or the other.

See, I do not know if this is a procedure that ticks off every few years for anyone on SSI, where the computer says oh it is time to harass this person for a little while to see if they can be got rid of, and so happens regularly, or if this is a one-time push to see how many people they can cut costs on at one time. But either way it seems abundantly clear to me that it is a deliberate effort to cull people out of SSI benefits, whether they are taking us one at a time or targeting several in one go.

I will leave to the side the complex and worthwhile problem of whether this sort of bureaucratic action is being taken actually to trim payments to people who might no longer need them. It does not look that way to me; they want to see if another agency can fund my benefits. Paper money shuffling. The point, though, is that this sort of maneuvering will undoubtedly cause people like me to lose their benefits quite aside from any question of whether any of us are in need of them: and it will do so by exploiting the fact of our disabilities. They are betting that I will not be up to the challenge of taking them on. They would stand a very good chance of winning that bet very quickly if I did not have access to external resources. Many disabled people do not.

And so this letter is not something that just happens to upset me. It is a manifestation of a systemic failure to address disability in terms that are appropriate for addressing disability without causing further harm.

I do not mean to make claims about some grand conspiracy to bully disabled people out of their benefits (even though my definition of “conspiracy” is shifting these days to include those that are enacted without any well-organized and deliberate agency to guide them). But there certainly is a widespread mythology about disability benefits being abused and individuals getting rich off their Social Security checks. In response to this mythology we certainly can see an array of forces trying to make it harder and harder to obtain disability benefits. And further arguments over who should and should not get how much money for what.

What there is not, that I am aware of, is any conversation in the US that looks at how the Social Security Administration itself treats disabled people, and whether it treats us equitably in its administration of SSI and SSDI.

where you must repent before kindergarten

I was talking to my therapist the other day–auspicious start for a blog post innit?–mainly because I pay her to give me an hour a week in which to think of something to say out loud which is itself a major exercise in social willpower for me not that in my universe “the will” names something at all legible as such but this may be idiopathic or really I am not going to try to explain the problems I have with it right now.

But so a topic arose as it frequently does concerning the tenets of the Judaism that she follows in relation to such things as the Buddhism we are both interested in and the Christianity I was raised to believe but walked away from for the sake of self-preservation in early adolescence which was a late adolescence which is why at 16, 17 I was only in early adolescence and the question we were looking at that is the other day my therapist and I not in 1978 was what does each say about self-anything. Self-regard, self-care, self-compassion, self-hatred, self-ish-ness–we mentioned all of those and probably some more self-doings/qualities/things.

I do not know precisely which sort of Judaism she follows but it is likely not Conservative or Orthodox but I have not asked so that is what it is a likelihood and not a confident assertion. But she said that if you are Jewish, then the general form of a prescriptive rule is, in her words, “Do this–unless it is not healthy for you.” I drew from this that the Jewish Rules are serious but they are not intended to do harm and so one is more or less obliged to be mindful about the consequences of following a rule and that includes a mindfulness toward oneself.

I pointed out that although one might think to look for this same principle in Christianity what with its shared history with Judaism, regard for the self seems not to have translated well if at all. What I hear from my Catholic friends is that Catholicism did not pick it up and what I have experienced of it tells me that Protestantism did not pick it up either or at least the more conservative parts did not or at least not the evangelical and or fundamentalist and or dominionist strains with which I am far far too well-acquainted.

Anathema, actually, is what would be any principle of caring for oneself first rather than others, and especially powerful others, and especially powerful others holding positions of authority who have laid down rules they expect you to follow. It is not that the self is any kind of illusion. The self is eternal. The self will survive the self that is the death of “the flesh” and be judged according to how well it withdrew from and overcame its fleshy self during its earthly bondage to it.

I walked home with visions of Platonic horses pulling chariots this way and that but in the ten minutes it took me to go the four blocks I drew out for myself something like this:

Fundamentalist Christianity has done with the Platonic idea of the unruly horse leading the disciplined horse astray and the chariot of the self to ignominy that which it does best with most ideas it did not come up with from scratch. It runs them all the way through the very ends of logic and out the other side and then continues on indefinitely or until it reaches a level of sufficient cruelty toward the negative term.

There is always a negative term.

So unlike the Buddhist self which might be said to be not real or to be an illusion or at the very least impermanent and delicate and subject to the same decay and entropy as any other phenomenon arising from a collection of living matter and so in a practical sense something for which attachment leads to grief this fundamentalist self could not be more real existing as it does in a physical dimension for now and a spiritual dimension forever. More precisely the earthly part is split from the really real part that must purify itself of itself or of its other self.

Bajillions of academic points of departure await. I am not going to take any of them although they might sneak in anyhow. Because experience is more compelling to write about much of the time or that much time that I spend trying to estimate what style to aim for forgetting that style will emerge according to the general outline I am trying to follow and who made that outline because who wants to speak. And so I quote many preachers, sunday school teachers, evangelists, and those traveling revival preachers who had the precise amount of charisma to charm a congregation for a week or so before they needed to move on lest anyone get worn out in the spirit.

Something like this and many times in slightly different ways sometimes but sometimes the same phrase once and twice and three times with a rising voice for emphasis maybe a pointing finger often an intense, penetrating gaze and then quickly whisper and hush and the air crackles and stirs until down to the heartbeats auditioned by their own bodies for some measure of faint resonance or conviction stirring almost without pattern or rhyme. until now.

We must die to the self. The self is evil. The self is in thrall to Satan. The self was born separate from god (or the universe or everything but not out loud). The self will lead you that is the real you astray. You must not listen to what your self wants. The self must be deprived of its fondest wishes. The self must be rebuked. The self must be conquered, subjugated. The self must be denied that is it must come to know itself as abject as fallen as unworthy as treacherous mad sick mistaken broken beyond humanly-possible repair so dangerous and to be endlessly blocked from getting what it says it needs or wants at least until it admits to its own degeneracy and begs for forgiveness rather than mercy because mercy is not on offer even though the word is invoked so frequently that one might think it meant something quite unusual.

Otherwise we risk ‘Hell’: that catastrophic condition worse than death where all connection and light are extinguished not just forever but repeatedly taken away to heap loss upon loss and anguish upon anguish.

Because God— well here things get quite out of hand and I am not really in the mood to draw out the entire Protestant or conservative or fundamentalist or evangelical Christian cosmology, but as many have pointed out the fundamentalist Christian version of God has a way of looking like an authority figure with some baggage of his own flying into fearsome rage if any of his children dare to withhold affection or wish him ill or even look at him wrong. The point of salvation–be it whatever any given congregation determines it must be–is not the point at which the self gets a break from the

well I will go ahead


Is that clear? I mean is this as clear to you as it is to me? However large a line can be drawn around the Christianity that treats its selves this way and I think the question I am going to pursue next is where the line itself might have begun with the Reformation or prior to that but wherever it began did that particular articulation of Christianity could it have emerged out of a culture in which abuse, that is intergenerational child abuse along several spectra was not endemic or (about to or already become) foundational?

Explanations and analogies are only what they are because we who come up with them are good at seeing patterns but patterns are sometimes nothing but pattern rather than the expression of some force more fundamental than that perceiving the pattern. This is how the question arises for example whether the patterns we see in the positions of celestial bodies relative to this celestial body as it would be looking up at somewhere else’s ceiling are interesting pastimes or alignments of cosmic forces whose influence on us is related somehow to the patterns we have been able to elaborate out of them. The question then whether the pattern is also an expression of forces that necessitate that very pattern or whether the existence of the pattern is a consequence solely of our ability to create patterns sometimes or almost always we forget to ask unless our method requires that we remember but still we forget. And also the question could some other array of forces completely different from what I am thinking of also have produced this pattern because if so the whole puzzle is still open this question also falls away in the euphoria of having constructed a pattern that appears to fit neatly and everywhere we currently have data points for. That a given pattern is the best and most useful to come along so far does not rule out the possibility that a better one could come along in some other place and time but for the same set of data.

My experience tells me that the last question remains open when imagination is willing to grant that it cannot imagine everything imaginable or at least not all at once and certainly not yet. There may be other conditions keeping it open but this one seems necessary. And generally speaking I tend to imagine that almost anything else could be the case if it could be considered reasonably as that which currently appears reasonably to me to be the case. This would be why I almost never make claims without a few dozen qualifications.

And so my argument from incredulity may come to nothing but I am going to continue to act as though it is worth thinking through even over a long period of time because I am sort of on a mission although I have never been able to name that mission exactly I am pretty sure I took off on it almost 45 years ago or maybe even one or two years before that.

Here is a list of things that I have read mostly in other people’s writing about childhood abuse that make sense to me within the context of relatively general ideas about child development here in the culture that I grew up in whichever one or ones that is or those are and which–
well here is a list and some interjections:

It is said that:

Children are dependent on their primary caretakers or parents (and from here I am going to use “parents” as a synecdochical or abbreviate reference to whoever carries the most responsibility for feeding, protecting, sheltering, nurturing, training, and all else that is needed to keep a child healthy and safe. I know that there are many individuals who do this who yet might not be “parents” in a legal or biological sense in my culture but “primary caretaker” has too many syllables even for me and “caretaker” is not specific enough). The younger the child, the further the extent of dependence to the point of absolute dependence in infancy. Children will each view their parents as all-knowing and all-good in rough proportion to both the child’s age and their level of dependency.

I take this at face value when not purposefully engaging in deep psychoanalytic spelunking. In my own experience it seems true enough of what I can recall of conscious thoughts and feelings when I was small. I took everything my mother told me about the world as the literal, infallible truth, even when I was old enough maybe to start to intuit the potential problems in being that credulous and that trusting.

But that was me. And this sort of thing gets said by a wide variety of people who work with a wide variety of children and so whether it is strictly true in every case it is mythically so in general. Interestingly I think also this infallibility and goodness are usually attributed to conservative constructions of ‘God.’ And often for the same reasons.

None of that is news.

Children whose parents are abusive, who inflict pain, who punish their children for perceived imperfections–and I am thinking of such things as being unable to avoid spilling ever or unable to be always perfectly quiet or unable to always suppress anger or unable to always suppress sadness, doubt, upset, jealousy, desire, or other affects that strike the parents as negative, threatening, dangerous in some way whether to their own peace of mind or to the child’s future as an acceptable person and I am also thinking of outsized punishment for anything or for nothing at all using physical beating or refusal to meet basic needs or deliberate and deep shaming or turning away repeatedly in a kind of serial abandonment that leaves a child always at risk of losing those upon whom their survival rests–these children are faced with a dilemma that they can only solve one way.

That is, their all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful parents cannot possibly be doing any of these things out of any sort of error at all from the point of view of a child. That would be catastrophic: the parents would become untrustworthy during a time when a child has no means to protect itself from capriciousness and needs its parents to be consistently benevolent. Functionally a child with untrustworthy parents would be an orphan and quite without any remedy: when you are very young, to be orphaned is to be as good as dead.

And so self-preservation dictates that some solution be found very very quickly.

In an abusive family, children are also often punished for behavior over which they cannot be reasonably expected to have control: strong feelings for instance–especially feelings that parents do not know themselves how to handle without shame and punishment. Expressing unpleasant (to the parents) feelings can earn vociferous correction and this amplifies the dilemma to the point that a child comes to understand that its very existence as an emotional being is putting them at risk of abandonment and death.

The solution may already be clear: a child experiencing this kind of abuse from its parents must choose to reject whatever parts of themselves seem to be angering or alienating or upsetting its parents. Because if they can somehow keep those parts hidden the risk of orphanhood and death begins to diminish. Put another way to emphasize the enormity of this threat: the risk of sudden and catastrophic annihilation begins to diminish to the extent that the child can learn to hide its strongest feelings from its parents.

Parallels jumping out at me so quickly I can barely keep up with them so here is one of them: fundamentalist Christianity taught me that I was born evil and that I must repudiate myself in order to find favor with a god who otherwise wanted to see me suffer disproportionately to anything I could realistically have done to that point. I was often bewildered to be told that this god was very upset about something I had done which at the time I felt I had done out of necessity and sometimes under the duress of having to choose from possible actions that all seemed risky and so it was imperative to find that one that would be least painful or more importantly the one I thought least likely to annoy god or my parents because their annoyance was more urgent a problem than my own relative well-being.

But I also learned eventually–too soon really but not right away not the very moment I learned to speak–that a place of eternal catastrophic abandonment and annihilation awaited all people for their inherent evilness. If that sounds like what has been called hell, then I am describing it adequately for now.

The only choice offered to all people all of whom are defined as evil at the moment of birth–and this varies across denominations but the basic idea of original sin holds that we are born into a fallen state whether or not we have a few years of grace in which we are taught that we ourselves are responsible for that fallenness in the eyes of the god who cannot apparently be anywhere near anyone who is in this state for reasons that can be logically circular at times–the only way to escape orphanhood or death or catastrophic abandonment or hell is to reject one’s fallen self: to repent, or acknowledge that one has been evil all along and that as an evil being one can do nothing acceptable in the eyes of this god who does by now begin to resemble an abusive parent: arbitrary, unpredictable, and uniformly rejecting in that no part of the self will remain uncondemned: eventually even the best of intentions catch dad/mom/god on a bad day and will bounce back to the self as unanticipated shame, abandonment, and/or violent rebuke.

Reality for a child in an abusive family can become chaotic as violence or shame or rejection are unpredictable outgrowths of the parents’ own shifting emotional or physiological rhythms–rhythms that a child cannot comprehend well enough to be able anticipate their effects. The only controllable entity in a child’s universe is its own self or rather the child’s own self is the only entity on which it is allowed to exert any control be it effective or not. Much as the fundamentalist Christian self remains under constant scrutiny for shortcomings that cause its god to turn away–to stop speaking, in effect, or to send a believer to her/his room to search themself for signs and motives of and remedies for disobedience–this child’s self will be under whatever degree of self-surveillance is necessary to keep its parents from turning away.

There are finer splittings of the self within the tradition called Western but this one resonates here: a child living in an abusive family will come to militate against its own self or that is it will divide itself against itself or against the bad self or against the self who appears responsible for unpredictable abandonment and or injury. Or at least so far as the child can make out those qualities in themselves that enrage or upset or drive away their parents must be repudiated–one might say the child must repent–and carefully controlled lest they emerge in any recognizable form. Because those parts of the self for the child at that time are in fact dangerous and they represent a certain evil insofar as they appear to the child to directly jeopardize their only source of sustenance and protection.

And so the child’s self repudiates or repents of its other self in order to reduce the immediate danger of sudden catastrophic abandonment and annihilation–or something like hell, say.

I recall hearing more than once that the family was the microcosm for god’s kingdom but I doubt that anyone saying that had looked closely at the what similarities might be seen between that kingdom and abusive families. Of course abusive families have only been relatively lately recognized as abusive and I do not know how many others might have noticed by now that the abused child’s necessary war with itself might be mirrored or otherwise reproduced in the fundamentalist Christian’s war on themselves–and even could easily pass for abusive parenting when fundamentalist Christian teachings are handed down and enforced through familial power structures.

So I am just going to say that I think I see something here and it looks entangled to me with the culture I grew up in to such an extent that it is not always clear where abuse and fundamentalist Christianity can be completely distinguished from one another. If a culture produced abusive parents who produced abused children who grew up needing substitute parents while only recognizing abusive authority figures as acceptably parent-like then those grown children might predictably choose or stick with a religious tradition that supplies them not only with such a parent but with an entire social structure that feels like home because it supports ongoing abusive relations between its upper and lower hierarchies. And so their campaign against themselves can continue but not only that: it is reinforced and modeled as normal and necessary.

It seems clear that USian mainstream culture has absorbed this hostility to the self albeit in complex and ambivalent ways: selfishness is almost universally regarded as a defect even while a self with a drive to dominate others and to profit from this domination is hailed as ambitious or possessed of a strong work ethic–whether or not the dominating requires any sort of productive work. One could investigate the Protestant/Puritan/Calvinist roots of such ambivalence or rather it has been done but I am not aware of connections yet drawn between micro-cultures of abuse–abusive families–and larger structures of abuse or not in such a way that they might be detectable in fundamentalist Christianity nor much written on any historical or genealogical analysis of that connection. If there is one.

The last thing I want to say though is something of a resistant push back against the notion of selfishness as a defect of character but not at all in some Ayn Randish exultation in cruelty inflicted on others out of the crude narrow selfishness arising in a culture where abuse is practiced as a matter of course. And especially not so long as a self who inflicts cruelty on others is able thereby to achieve some great accomplishment or idea–one that will eventually avenge all the insults sustained by this reactive, resentful self who still lives and acts under the rule of self-abnegation as its reverse side and so does not in any way undermine or question the tradition of abuse.

Instead of this polarized tendency either to torment the self for the sake others or to torment others for the sake of the self, one thing–and it is not just one thing but here I will condense a few things–that appeals to me in Buddhist thought is that the self is a transient effect among all the other transient effects in the world and as points of unnecessary suffering these would benefit the most from a compassionate intervention: one that shifts attention away from continually judging the self as to its acceptability and especially away from the cultural axiom that there can be no connection between a yes and a no judgment on this question, no possible position between the extremes of elect or damned.

Suspending reactivity against oneself can create space in which to do not much more than note that oneself appears here at this time and place, but that notice can set off a curious cascade of perceptual and conceptual change. This has been my experience, once I manage to interrupt my own self-obsession by studiously and calmly observing whatever–whatever as in whatever happens–and I am able to pause the reactive impulses from my own sense of besieged self: the siege comes to an end. Or is suspended at least, and all of us here the non-royal we can breathe a bit and begin to pay greater attention to what comes to pass, be it self or other or other other, without always meeting it with suspicion and hostility.

* * *

Most of what I have relied upon here for descriptions of abusive families has come from elsewhere but the only discrete elsewheres I can recall at the moment are Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child and For Your Own Good and also Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. I think the specific question of familial abuse is distinct from the more general ideas I have read in what is sometimes called trauma theory. At least so far, the mentions I have run across of “abuse culture” as an attribute of westernish cultures have arisen mainly in activist circles, which are not necessarily coextensive or even concentric with academic ones. And so this is all the bibliography I currently have, but it leaves out all those titles and writers whose names I never took down.