Growing new relationships with a ukelele #addiction #recovery #mentalhealth #mentalillness #socialecologiesoflearning

September 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have been writing non-stop on my dissertation. Progress has been made, but I am nowhere near done. I just looked at the series of selfies taken by a man who walked 5,000 km. I wonder what my selfies would have looked like if I had documented every day I have written this thesis. Graying hair, burned out eyes, sallow cheeks, worry and frown lines, clenched teeth. What about a time lapse of my wrists and shoulders? Increasing inflammation, less movement and mobility, clicking tendons. What about a map of my relationships over this time? Let’s use a scatter graph of dots that indicate people in my life and degree of closeness. Over time the dots are disappearing and those that remain are further and further away. Except for Husband and two dogs. They stand close to me and never move.

Today is Labor Day. I’m not sure how I feel about it, other than a one day reprieve to catch up on housework that I have ignored while I wrote this weekend. This afternoon there is an annual block party in my neighbourhood. I am going to take my ukelele over and hang out. I had better take a chair with me too.

I am making progress on my thesis and I am actually quite excited with the story it is telling. My PhD work has focused on relationships. What a surprise. The songs I write are about relationships. The portraits I draw are about relationships. And now my scholarship is about relationships. I understand why I am pre-occupied with the quality and characteristics of relationships because my own history of family relationships has had such a profound impact on my own life possibilities.

I have worked these years developing an ecological theory for social learning. I have called it social ecologies of learning. My research for the thesis was in education, so I have been developing a social ecology of learning with regards to education, specifically, teacher education. However, this theoretical approach is not limited to education, in fact, it is generalizable to our human existence and how we learn in any social group.

First, a social ecology of learning considers our human relationships as affecting our development socially and biologically. My theoretical approach shows how the social is biological, and vice versa. There is no separation between the biological processes of brain function and the social processes of relationships. The biological processes of cognition are stimulated by perturbations in our field of perception – that is, changes in our environment trigger neurobiological processes. Changes in our environment include temperature, time of day, altitude, barometric pressure, etc. Changes in our environment also include communication – speaking, being spoken to, making gestures, physical movement, proximity to each other, etc. Relational changes in the environment also trigger neurobiological responses. The intensity of these interactions affect the significance of the memories that are formed in relation to these events.

Our memory systems are based on an internal process of evaluating the intensity of sensory-motor data (perceptions of change from the environment). Each one of us has unique thresholds for evaluating intensity, determined by genetics and previous life experiences. We use a value-category memory system to store our interpretations of events in our day to day lives. When we experience particular events as intense and pleasurable, they have a greater impact than events that are not as intense and pleasurable. The same goes for other emotional reactions to sensory-motor data. The more intense our emotional response, the more significant the memory stored in our value-category memory system. Understanding how our value-category memory system works in social relationships helps us to understand how our relational experiences give rise to our social ecologies of learning.

I have lived with post-traumatic stress disorder most of my life. At first I thought it was a result of my mother developing a condition of paranoid schizophrenia when I was a child. Later I realized it was that first experience combined with having a narcissistic father who was incapable of putting me first, of caring for me as a normal father would, that I could look to him for security, validation, and support. At a crucial period in my development, as I went through puberty into early adulthood,  the pattern of emotional and psychological threat, invalidation and complete lack of support had a profound effect on my life decisions and the course my life took. It affected the kinds of relationships I sought and the kinds of men I formed attachments to. It affected how I felt on a day to day basis and the level of threat, disrespect, and undermining I expected from everyone in my life. My work on social ecologies of learning has helped me understand the relationship between my environmental conditions and the kinds of responses I am capable of formulating in certain situations. This understanding is helping me make new choices on my own behalf, and my life conditions are slowly improving.

After I get this dissertation booted out the door I want to bring this work into the field of mental health and addiction recovery. I am a recovering addict, 18 years clean from drugs and alcohol. I no longer look at my mental, emotional and physical condition as a disease. I see it as a predictable consequence of living in conditions of mental abuse, emotional deprivation and physical threat. I do not see myself as autonomous of the influence of my conditions, rather, I see myself as autopoietically empowered to respond to these conditions, knowing that I can foster conditions that can give me the strength to resist the damaging effects of old patterns and relationships. After I get this PhD out of the way I want to pursue a degree in clinical psychology, specifically ecological psychology, and set myself up with a practice to help others as I am finding this approach is helping me.

My research helps to explain why working 12-step programs can be essential for changing the conditions of one’s life. The steps and traditions of 12-step recovery are not specific to those programs, they were drawn from historical writings and proven methods for improving human conditions. When studied as a social ecology of learning, it becomes clear why we are able to change our lives if we work a 12-step recovery program.

It feels good to be able to apply these many years of work to something that is so close to my heart and so important in our current human condition.

When I take my ukelele over to my neighbourhood block party and play some songs, I am contributing to the social ecology of learning in my own immediate environs (hopefully for the better!). I have long used a saying to guide my choices and decisions as I work to build a new life, “For the good of all concerned.” I will bring that to life today as I catch up on housework and spend time with my neighbours.

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