autopoiesis in family systems: neglect, deprival and abuse as a familiar environmental condition and why I re-created it in life #aa #na #slaa #alanon #recovery #mentalhealth

July 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have been thinking about the connection between the autopoietic drive of living organisms to structurally couple with their environment and a child’s drive for validation. Autopoiesis is a property common to all living organisms. It translates as auto – meaning self, and poises – meaning creating. Autopoiesis is the idea that all living organisms have a universal property of begin self-creating, that is, they are capable of responding to changing conditions in the environment by adjusting their connection to the environment.

Living organisms are depended on resources from the environment to sustain their existence. For example, I am a human being, I rely on water, the atmosphere, and the sun to sustain my life. I need water to survive. In my environment, I source water and I adapt to my environmental conditions for water access. In my case, my source of water can be taps in the kitchen and bathroom, it can be the hose in the garden, it can be bottled water purchased from a local convenience store. When I am at work it can be the bottle of water I have brought from home, or the bathroom tap. I need to connect to water in my environment and I need to be able to respond to changing environmental conditions to ensure my supply of water. If there are drought conditions my access to water may be limited. If there are flood conditions, my access to water may actually threaten my survival. At all times I am responding to my changing environment to ensure adequate supply and security of my person. My ability to respond to my environment to ensure adequate supply and security of my person is autopoiesis. My ability to assess my conditions and respond appropriately is an expression of auto – self generative, poiesis – creating, autopoiesis.

Autopoiesis expresses an ecological concept for all living systems. Life is dependant on the environmental conditions from which it emerges. If the environmental conditions change, living organisms must be able to adapt to these changing conditions to survive. If the environmental conditions change so drastically that they no longer sustain life, the living organism dies, or it seeks other, more supportive living conditions.

In my last post I posited the idea that mental ill health in family systems enacts mental ill health in multiple generations of family systems. If a mentally unhealthy family system goes untreated, it will reproduce mentally unhealthy family members in the next generation. Autopoiesis explains how this is possible.

My earliest memory from childhood was a moment when  my frustrated attempts to connect with  my mother culminated in an eruption of violence. I did not know it at the time, but my mother was suffering from post partum depression after the birth of her sixth child, my youngest brother (Brother4). She was in a constant state of depression, unable to meet my gaze with the life giving response that I desperately sought. I remember feeling scared and extremely frustrated. I was trying to get my mother to help me put a diaper on my doll so I could put it to bed. But I could not get her attention. Finally, in a fit of rage, I grabbed the doll by the leg and whacked its head on the floor. I don’t remember what happened after that. I do remember that after that the doll was permanently damaged. Where both of its eyes used to open and close when the doll was tilted backwards and forward, now only one eye worked. The other eye just stayed closed. That moment marks a culmination in the development of my young psychology, a moment that can be traced forward through my years of struggle to connect with family, life partners, and my own children.

The depression my mother was suffering from was a new environmental condition that I was being forced to adapt to. My autopoietic responses went through several permutations before finally breaking down in rage-filled distress. My attempt to break through my mother’s depression was not successful, I was not able to bring her attention onto me, to get my life-sustaining needs for validation met. After this event I autopoietically responded by turning my unmet needs for validation onto myself, I reasoned that I must be unlovable because, 1) my mother would not give me her love (in the form of her attention) without me having to do something to get it, and 2) everything I did to try to get my mother’s love was not successful getting her attention. I could not bear the thought that my mother did not love me, or was incapable of loving me, and so I turned this lack of love and attention into a personal deficit, there must be something wrong with me. This childish reasoning enabled me to survive extremely neglectful and deprived emotional conditions as a child. I was able to channel the profound fear that I would not survive without my mothers’ loving gaze onto myself. In a sense, I felt some control over my conditions by this autopoietic response.

My mother’s post partum depression was a part of my childhood environmental condition. I responded autopoietically to these conditions by forming a view about myself that allowed me to survive these environmental conditions. Although this view of myself allowed me to survive, it was deeply psychologically injuring and I grew up with a profound sense of loneliness, alienation, and low self-esteem. This is why I suggest that family mental health is systemic and multi-generational in some cases. I wonder how many cases.

In my case, I was conditioned to find human relationships neglectful and depriving. I was only able to be attracted to others who were neglectful and depriving of me. After I left my family home, I continued to recreate the family conditions to which I was accustomed. I was actually unable to change this autopoietic response until I got into recovery for alcohol and drug abuse.


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