Recognizable features #mentalhealth #mentalillness #ptsd #motherhealth #drawingstrength

January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Every once in awhile, sometimes with more frequency that either of us would like, Husband and I have terrible fights. Over the eighteen years we have known each other, these fights have taken on a pattern, almost a ritual of giving and taking hurtful words and escalating emotional intensity. If it weren’t for the fact that we are both in recovery and both working to improve the condition of our lives, including the emotional condition, our marriage would probably not have survived.

These fights generally last two or three days, with long periods of leaving each other alone interspersed with efforts to re-connect. For whatever reason, after two or three days the tornado has spent itself and we carefully start talking to each other, hugging, and telling each other we love each other. With each iteration of these fights, I am forced to go through my own growing and grieving pains.

What sets us off is immaterial. What is important is how I get triggered by Husband’s emotional and mental states, and how frustrated he gets when he needs understanding and comfort, that I am thrown into a panic and completely unavailable. When he gets frustrated he gets mean, condescending, invalidating, and disrespectful. When he gets frustrated and I realize every effort I make to ‘fix’ the situation is only making it worse, I withdraw, hurt and angry at him for causing all this trouble. Then, when I am angry enough, instead of weeping and gnashing, I go on the attack, accusing him of causing all the trouble and telling him his behaviour is unacceptable. I feel righteous, indignant, and royally pissed for the way he is treating me.

He is looking at me with dagger eyes and I am defiant. There is nothing wrong with me that won’t be fixed by him changing. Al-anon, anyone?

This time, during our extended period of ‘alone-time’ I furiously wrote down everything that I was saying to myself because I was unable to give him what he wanted to be happy with me, to be content with his relationship with me. This is what I wrote:

I am feeling angry. I am feeling afraid. I am feeling desperate. I am feeling distressed. I am feeling hopeless. I am feeling hurt. I am feeling attacked. I am feeling put down. I am the problem. I am stupid. I am slow. I am selfish. I am self-centred. It is all my fault. it is up to me to fix this. It is all up to me. I deserve to be treated like this because I am worthless. I don’t belong. I am not loved. I am not safe. This is all my fault. People are horrible. I am treated unjustly. I set unreasonable boundaries for myself. I feel diminished. I feel invalidated. It is hopeless. There is noting I can do but it is up to me to fix this. I am stuck. I am trapped. I feel manipulated. I feel dismissed. I feel attacked. I feel put down. None of this is making any sense. Why can’t I just do this. It is all myself. I am treated like an idiot. Attacked. Put down. Terrified. Panicking. There is no way out. There is nothing I can do…

This continued, allowing myself to repeat any statement that came into my mind. At the same time as I was writing this down, my jaw was trembling and I had tears streaming down my face. I could barely breathe. I felt excruciating emotional pain. I didn’t stop, I just let it continue to spew across the page until there was nothing left to write.

In the aftermath, I thought about what I could do to bring myself back from the bleak contradictory beliefs: 1) it is all up to me to fix this; and 2) I can’t fix this because I am wholly inadequate for the task. I remembered photos I had taken the last time I was pulling myself out of a deep emotional flashback. I had gone to the neighbourhood where I grew up. There was a creek running behind our house, and all through my childhood I had gone to that creek to play, to watch the water levels change with the seasons, to retreat from the insanity of my childhood home.

The creek is still there, as are the familiar shapes of rocks and boulders, vine maple trees and ferns, and ancient hollow cedar stumps. I decided to see if I could make a drawing from the photos I took, something for me to focus on, and draw me out of my painful state of mind and emotional exhaustion. I selected a photo, and then zoomed in on the image until I had reduced the complexity of the scene to one manageable fragment. I used a pencil on my sketchbook page to render a version of the photograph into shapes, composition and variations of light and dark tone.

As I built up the layers of scribbles a phrase came to mind, ‘recognizable features’. I realized the coursing water through the mossy rocks, the curling swirls of fresh mountain rain winding over, under and around glacial boulders, were as familiar to me as my hands scratching images with a pencil. These were recognizable features and in their familiarity I found comfort. I thought about my fight with Husband and noticed that when he is so angry with me that he stares at me with those dull, thunderous eyes, that I do not recognize his features. He is a stranger to me, and in that strangeness, I panic.

As I examined the statements that had coursed out of my brain onto the page in a rapid torrent, I realized these were the things I told myself as a child when I faced the perplexing and terrifying reality of my mother’s mental illness. My mother was a loving woman, who cared deeply for her children, all of us. However, she was stricken with debilitating postpartum depression when my youngest brother was born, her sixth child in seven years. I was four years old at the time. My mother was one of the five percent of women who suffer post partum depression and go on to develop a full-blown psychiatric disorder. It wasn’t until I was ten that my mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. This diagnosis was a consequence of her attacking a paper boy and throwing a rock through the neighbour’s window. As child, my mother had gone from a source of comfort and security, to a person of unrecognizable features. Even when she was sitting in front of me, I did not recognize the dull blank blackness in her eyes, her sallow, flat complexion. She was there in body, but emotionally, and later, mentally, I could not reach her, I could not recognize her features.

As I worked through the drawing I was able to see the impossibility of the position I was in, as a child, and how I felt trapped. I was able to see how Husband’s legitimate need for support and understanding, escalating into a fury of frustration, was not the same thing, but the cues of comportment and composure were familiar enough to bring up those long buried feelings. In this sense, his bleak despondence of being misunderstood were recognizable features that awakened that lumbering monster inside me. I was able to see how my childish response, to believe I could somehow change the course of my family history, while I was utterly unprepared, and unsupported, to do so, was an extremely painful condition. That painful condition had never been properly excised, and so, when current conditions were properly attuned, the wraith of anger, frustration, grief and pain would rise up once again and thud me into a form of wakeful coma.

But this time the pencil drew me through it, giving me a way to put the whole experience, past and present, into words. It allowed me to draw comfort from the familiar setting of the creek bed and the rushing winter water, while giving that young girl, and this old lady, the strength we needed to withstand the onslaught, to let it rage past us, through us, and over us.

Here is the drawing – nothing special, but the beginning of something:

Recognizable features of rocks and boulders, and the flow of winter rain down the mouton, through my childhood backyard

Recognizable features of rocks and boulders, and the flow of winter rain down the mouton, through my childhood backyard



Mindful writing practice to re-conceptualize painful memories and traumatic triggers #mentalhealth #addition #alcoholism #posttraumaticstress

January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

I have been practicing several new cognitive techniques that are helping me feel better on a day to day basis. These techniques address the autopoietic aspect of my experience. That is, auto – self, and poetic – creating, autopoietic speaks to the idea that we are not exactly autonomous within our environmental conditions, rather, we are autopoietic, we can respond to our environmental conditions, although we are never wholly separable from them.

I have suffered for most of my life from the idea that I was an autonomous person, because I believed that meant I was supposed to have the will, or inner fortitude, to transcend my environmental conditions and the fact that I seemed to be subordinate to them was an indication of a fatal character flaw rather than an accurate representation of the reality of my experience. As an autopoietic person, I am empowered to respond to my environmental conditions. I don’t have to change them, I can become skilled at assessing what they are, and then determining by best course of action based on that assessment. Given that environmental conditions are dynamic, and constantly changing, this means that I am in a continuous process of mindfully ‘reading’ my environmental conditions and sorting through a realm of possibilities for what my next steps will be.

My best friend introduced me to a new book, “The Mindful Path through Worry and Rumination: Letting Go of Anxious and Depressive Thoughts“, by Sameet M. Kumar. I started writing for twenty minutes on a daily basis, as much as I could remember to do it. I also started using mindfulness to practice meditation. What I noticed is that when I practice a simple inventory taking process by naming sensory perceptions – what I can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, as they are occurring – this cognitive process supersedes my habit of anxious rumination and displaces troublesome thought clusters. I am noticing I can implement this technique at any time, in any place and it helps me cope with troublesome triggers into unwanted mental and emotional states.

I made myself a little database app for my iPhone to track the relationship between observations of sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. What I noticed is that one sensory perception, especially in the words or deeds of others, can trigger unwanted thoughts that contribute to unwanted feelings. I also noticed that observations of sensory perceptions seem to trigger unwanted feelings that tag unwanted thoughts that I use to explain my uncomfortable feelings. The other thing I noticed about this tag-team effect of sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings, was that they quickly became self-referential. It only took one sensory perception to trigger a cascade of negative thoughts and escalating anxious feelings. Depending on how hungry, tired, or lonely I was feeling to begin with, this exponential increase also ‘trigger stacked’ on top of previous cycles of unwanted thoughts and feelings. This helped me understand how a seemingly minor perturbation in my field of perception could turn into a full blown panic attack or rageful frame of mind in the ‘blink of an eye’.

These observations, thoughts and feelings have led me to practice mindful writing exercises. These exercises start with observations of my immediate surroundings, simple descriptions of what I hear, what I see, what I smell, taste, or feel (sensory perceptions on my skin). For example, right now I hear the percussion of rain falling on the street and sidewalk, I hear water running down gutter downspouts, I hear the splash of car tires on a distant, busy street. I hear a plane flying overhead, diminishing as it travels out of range. I hear voices of pedestrians passing on the sidewalk. I hear the slight sighing snore of my big dog sleeping nearby. I see the wet head of my golden coloured shepherd cross curled up in his favourite chair after our morning walk. I see him shift slightly to make himself more comfortable and hear him exhale a big sigh as he settles back to sleep.

In the chair next to him I see one crumpled ear of our fifteen year old fox terrier, wrapped in one of his favourite sleeping bags. I see him shudder slightly in his sleep. He is going deaf and blind so he has become quite attached to my physical body, always wanting to know where it is and only completely relaxing when he knows I am close by.

I am sitting in my living room, in a house built in 1906. It is a little drafty where I am sitting because I am surrounded by five bay windows and the cold damp air slides off the glass and touches my fingertips, my earlobes and my feet. The light is cold, grey, and dull, it is midday in early January and the sunlight is weak and watery at best on this northern latitude. At present the rain is falling in thick wet drops. Earlier this morning there were a few sodden flakes of snow mixed in.

This process of description engages my creativity, language, writing, and sense of connection. These faculties take precedence over reliving unpleasant memories from the past that trigger feelings of righteous indignation, sadness and unrequited love, or indulging in anxious rumination about the future and everything I can imagine going wrong as a pre-emptive strike against possible bad feelings in the future.

What I am noticing about this writing is that it is also leading me back in time, to examine conditions from my childhood and earlier decades of my life. These examinations are not following the same angst-ridden re-hashing of upsetting memories and hurt feelings, but rather, going back as a journalist recording observations from a time gone by. Somehow, by describing the scenes as if I were hovering over the scene and describing details and transitions, I am able to conceive them as events separable from me, even though I only remember them because I was immersed in them at the time. Now, as I use my new observational skills to describe past environmental conditions and evolving circumstances, I can ‘see’ them in a new way, and understand them beyond the injurious, trauma inducing events that have so dominated my life up to now. I no longer have to bury them, compartmentalize them, force them out of my thoughts. I can actually handle them, and start to see the players, my family members, with some of the compassion I apply to my reactive aggressive shepherd, and my deaf and blind fox terrier.

Wow. Could I possibly come to forgive my family members for the painful circumstances of our emergence and the roles they play in perpetuating hurtful family culture?

I do have hope today.

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obsessions and compulsions in marriage step 1 and step 2 #recovery #mentalhealth #marriage

July 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

I came back from walking the dog in a blue funk. I was feeling worthless, I couldn’t believe my husband loves me, that I deserve his respect, he just does the dishes, laundry, walks dogs, buys groceries, works on the house, fixes things, etc. because he feels a sense of duty and obligation. I was also feeling put upon, I could enumerate endless lists of how my husband was taking me for granted, burdening me with his emotional pressure, blaming me for the distance in our marriage. My mind bounced back and forth from one scenario to another: it has been years since we had sex, my husband is taking too much of my time and attention, my husband doesn’t find me attractive and never did, my husband needs professional therapy to address his depression, my husband will never be happy, my husband never was that interested in sex, we will never have sex again, I don’t like my husband anymore, etc. This is what we call ‘taking someone else’s inventory’. I was perfectly capable of listing and ruminating on my perceptions of my husband’s shortcomings, while at the same time incapable of looking at my own.

As usual, my preoccupation on my husband ran out of steam because I knew it was futile to try to change my husband. Then my thoughts turned toward my shortcomings and my ruminating began all over again. I have always been anxious, I am feeling depressed, I am unable to love anyone, I am incapable of intimacy, I am unattractive, I am unwanted because I am unlovable, I am inadequate, I am terrible at sex, I have never had a good sex life and now I am 58 and it is too late, I am fat, I am ugly, I am frumpy, I am uninteresting, an on and on. Ad nauseum.

This rumination leave me in an utterly dark mood. Hopeless, helpless, worthless. As I trudged up the front steps I decided to try something different. I sat down in a comfy chair on the front porch, pulled my feet up underneath me, closed my eyes, and followed my breath. Soon I was following the different sensations that came to my attention: a siren in the distance, a crow cawing nearby, the rustle of the summer breeze through the lombardi poplar leaves. I started to work my way through the first step, “I am powerless over my addiction and my life is unmanageable.” I am powerless over my husband and my life is unmanageable. I am powerless over my family and my life is unmanageable. I am powerless over my state of mind and my life is unmanageable. What is the evidence of unmanageability? My self-inflicted misery, my self-perpetuating suffering, my ongoing sense of worthlessness, ugliness, and lack of belonging that cause me so much emotional pain.

I moved onto step 2, “Came to believe a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.” I could feel that power all around me as the light touch of the summer breeze caressed my skin, as the sun glinted through leafy shadows, as the sound of birds drifted across the streetscape. In that moment I realized I was stuck in a dead end. On the one hand my mind was obsessing about changing my husband so that I would feel better, on the other hand my mind was obsessing about how I could change myself so that my husband would love me and I would feel better. Both of these propositions were fatally flawed because they were relying on my distressed brain to come up with solutions to my problems, when the origin of my problems was my distressed brain’s interpretation of reality. My brain was stuck in categorizing my sensory motor data in one way, no matter where the data was coming from, my brain was logging it in the value category memory system called, “Reasons Irrational Persistance is not good enough.”

I realized that the ‘power to change the things I can’ did not apply to changing my husband or changing myself. My distressed brain was not a good planner nor organizer for positive change. I needed something else to alleviate my suffering. In that moment I was inspired to sense the atmosphere around me as a power greater than myself. In the moment I perceived that overarching presence, I also perceived the false separation between looking outward at my husband or looking inward at myself as the source of my recovery. I was able to see my dichotomous thinking as a trap that was separating me from what I truly craved, which was a sense of belonging to life. I pictured myself ascending out of the polarizing perceptions that had kept me stuck and miserable. I gave myself up to the ebb and flow of that summer breeze, knowing that power, greater than myself, could lead me to sanity in that moment. I felt a sense of peace and comfort in that instant, and relaxed for the first time in a very long while.

Just then my husband approached, returning from his morning walk with Dog2. I had no plan as to my mode of address. Was I going to shun him, as I had been doing for the last 36 hours? Was I going to welcome him? I let these thoughts slide away and sat quietly, giving him a slight smile to indicate that something had changed and I was no longer looking at him with ‘dagger eyes’. He joined me on the front porch and we talked about the state of things, and agreed that we both wanted things to improve. He reminded me that I was not in this marriage alone, and that we both have a part to play in the sense of connectedness and belonging that we feel with each other.

He went on to talk about how the recent passing of his father had triggered anxiety and depression and how he was struggling to come to terms with his feelings of regret, relief, and confusion. I talked about how much pressure I was feeling to get the dissertation out and that I had been stuck for two days trying to figure out how to bulk out a data point made up of 114 email observations. We went inside and he helped me figure out a way forward with the dissertation. Later, that evening, he spoke at length about his feelings about family alienation, dysfunction, and loneliness.

This morning we buzzed each others’ hair and are moving on united in our purpose to put our lives together to strengthen ourselves, our families, and our friends. Onward.

putting the puzzle together again #recovery #mentalpod #mentalhealth #familyreunion

July 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Awww. Sweet Saturday. I am sitting in my living room with my 14 year old fox terrier curled up on a blanket on a nearby chair. The house is still asleep but I am up early as usual. Our 4 year old shepherd x is dozing in his crate upstairs waiting for me to put on my shoes and take him out for his first walk of the day. Husband is still sleeping. In our guest room, my grandson is sleeping. He has come to stay with us for awhile. We don’t know how long he will be with us, he will let us know when he is ready to go.

Yes, it happened that quickly, from not seeing him for four years to having him come to stay.

Yesterday midday Husband and I were getting ready to go to the job site. I heard voices outside and saw Daughter and Grandson down on the sidewalk. Daughter had come by to talk about Grandson coming to stay! Of course, we are delighted to have him here.

It feels like a missing puzzle piece has been put back in the puzzle. It feels so good to be reconnected with Daughter and Grandson. Daughter tells me that she will spend a bit of time with me before she heads back home.

Grandson is going to come to work with the company Husband and I work at. We are carpentry apprentices. Grandson is going to come on as a labourer and work a shovel and wheelbarrow. I hope it works out.

I am noticing how much I have changed in the four years since I was with my daughter. I am less anxious, less intrusive, and I am better at abstaining from bringing up emotionally difficult topics. I think I have been hard to hang out with because I have had a compulsion to bring up difficult emotional topics with family members. I know this compulsion comes from a lifetime of having to pretend these difficulties don’t exist so that I can have a sense of belonging to my family. I’m pretty much fed up with it. At the same time, I miss having family to hang out with. So I have to reconcile this internal state of being pulled apart even as I am trying to put myself together.

I remember the excruciating pain I felt when my daughter disclosed that my ex-husband had molested her. It was like I lost my footing and was in free fall off a precipice. I could not make the reconciliation between the man I had loved and who had fathered my sons, and the same man molesting my daughter. I so depended on him, at the time, for every shred of identity and esteem that I could muster. To have him revealed as a liar, a cheat, a thief, a scoundrel, a coward, an abuser, a betrayer. It was too much. At the time I didn’t believe I could live without him. It was the darkest hour of my life, perhaps worse than the day my father told me he was moving out and leaving me, with my four younger brothers, in the care of my mother, a paranoid schizophrenic in the grips of extreme psychosis and hallucinations.

For years I suffered a horrendous split in my reality, because I stayed with the abuser and my daughter moved into foster care. After I finally left him, I reconnected with my daughter, but our connection was marred by my extreme state of guilt and shame for having betrayed her trust and abandoned her at the tender age of 13. My guilt and shame had the effect of distorting our relationship and after 14 years of attempting to rebuild our relationship she broke off from me because I was setting boundaries for healthier communication between the two of us. I was working with a therapist at the time, and it was being revealed to me that I was allowing her to manipulate and use me because I was not dealing with my guilt, shame and horror at what had happened to her.

During these intervening four years I have been working to come to terms with the various forms my drive for validation takes in all facets of my life. This blog is part of that process. Listening to the Mental Illness Happy Hour is part of that process. Attending my Saturday afternoon NA meeting is part of the process. Earning a living, keeping my house in somewhat tidy shape, looking after my dogs, finishing my degree, expressing my creativity and artistry are all part of the that process.

I don’t know how it is going to turn out, and I don’t know where I am going to end up. For now, I am grateful to have my grandson back in my life. And my daughter somewhere nearby. Putting the puzzle together again.

Blind spots, blindsight and dysfunctional family systems #recovery #mentalpod #mentalhealth

July 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Banaji and Greenwald (2013) wrote Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People to explain the contradiction between what people espouse as laudable value and belief systems and what they do when they unconsciously enact bias in their day to day lives. They describe the physiological phenomena of blind spots and blind sight, and then extrapolate these phenomena into the social and relational dimensions of human interactivity. I have found their theory immensely helpful to understand the dysfunction of my alcoholic family.

Yesterday I wrote about how small day-to-day gestures that might seem insignificant even though they are undermining or invalidating in the moment,  amount to patterns of abuse, abandonment, betrayal, deprivation, and incest over time. However, when I have tried to explain the hurtful composite of these attitudes and behaviours toward me over a lifetime of being a member in this family, I am met with more invalidation, dismissal and rejection. It is so baffling to me. Because no one in my family can actually empathize with my experience, I am left bouncing around like a ping pong ball from one extreme of thought, “I should suck it up and just go to that family event.” to another, “I can’t remember attending a family event where I felt truly welcome or wanted,” to, “My family will be hurt if I don’t attend,” to “No one has shown any interest in me or my life for the past year, why should I expect anything different now?” to, “I miss my family and I want to belong, if I don’t attend I will never belong!” to, “Every family member has done something disrespectful or hurtful toward me and there is no opportunity to address the situation with any one of them, I don’t want to put myself in jeopardy again.”

Banaji and Greenwald (2013) describe how blind spots are literally a region in the retina of the eye that has no light-sensitive cells. No light arriving at that spot in the retina has a visual pathway to the brain. There are moments of vision when things really do disappear from sight. Our brains compensate for this missing information by ‘filling-in’ the gap (Rees & Weil 2009) by drawing on the surrounding colour and pattern. This is a rapid, pre-attentive process that depends on local processes generated at the edge of the blind spot.

Blind sight is a phenomenon that happens when subcortical retina-to-brain pathways are left intact but there is no conscious visual experience of perceiving the object. Patients with this condition can reach out and grasp an object in front of them even as they have no conscious visual experience of the object (Banaji & Greenwald (2013).  Banaji and Greewald write about blindspots and blindsight as a large set of hidden biases that share a feature with visual blind spots – we can be unaware of hidden biases in the same way we are unaware of a lack of light-sensitivity in the retina. Hidden bias also shares a feature with the pathological condition of blindsight. In the same way that a patient can’t ‘see’ an object can still act as if they do, hidden biases are capable of guiding our behaviour without our being aware of their role.

My argument is that the dysfunctional conditions of a distressed family system can also be shown to display phenomena of blindspots and blind sight. Patterns of belief and attitude, unexamined and unconscious, are used to ‘fill-in’ the gaps of psychological perception (of words, emotion, behaviour). Similarly, hidden bias toward certain family members, for good or ill (the favourite, the scapegoat, the black sheep) can be acted on, guiding behaviour without family members being aware of the role these hidden bias are playing.

I can’t blame my family system for being dysfunctional and pathological. I can take steps to protect myself from injury, even as I process the real pain of knowing that my family is not a source of comfort, safety, validation or enjoyment. Eventually, I believe I can become strong enough and self-efficacious to moderating my own hidden bias toward my family – that they are more esteemed than I am – and stand up for myself in new, and loving ways. Through these behaviours I can begin to change the family system from the inside, for the good of all concerned.

Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Delacorte Press.

Rees, G., & Weil, R. (2009) How Does the Brain Fill-in the Visual World? ACNR > VOLUME 9 NUMBER 4 > SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2009

summer family events – to go or not to go, that is the question #mentalpod #guywinch #guilt #apology #mentalhealth #recovery

July 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

I listened to the mini-podcast on Mental Illness Happy Hour with Guy Winch. Paul Gilmartin was talking with Guy Winch about topics from his book, Emotional First Aid. The focus of this particular mini-podcast was guilt. He talked about the skill required to apologize for causing hurt for our loved ones. He said the sign that an apology has been affective is that the tension caused by the hurtful offence dissolves, often with the beneficial effect of releasing feelings of tenderness and closeness.

One of the examples Guy Winch used as making an apology for missing attending a close friend’s birthday party. He gave a very good example of what a proper apology should contain, and why including statements that demonstrate empathy for the friend’s suffering are essential for a successful apology.

This podcast was very important to me. I have been grappling with my dread of family gatherings for decades. It does not help that I have several incidents in recent memory that only exacerbate my urge to avoid these events. When Paul Gilmartin asked how to deal with a past event that caused you hurt that makes you want to avoid attending an event, Guy Winch said this should be dealt with before the event by saying, “I would like to attend your event but there is something that I need to talk to you about. Can we have coffee?” And then share your experience of the past event and why you are feeling uncomfortable about attending another event. This kind of communication would fall into the category I call ‘difficult conversations’.

They did not discuss what to do when there is a lifetime of un-discussed events that have reached critical mass because there is no family system for having ‘difficult conversations’. I have a history of events with every member of my family that has led me to want to avoid attending family events. Not to mention the collective wall of family denial that has caused me great psychological injury. I remember from somewhere being given the advice to only focus on issues arising from the last 5 years. Anything before that time period is going to be too long in the distant past to be manageable. I have examples from the last 5 years of encounters that I found difficult with each of my closest family members: Father, Mother, Sister, Brother1, Brother2, Brother3, and Brother4.

There is an invitation, or rather an announcement, of a family event taking place on August 9. It is my distress, obsession and compulsion provoked by this invitation that is leading me to write my way through my history of mental ill health with my family. I don’t know how to respond to this invitation. I am tired of isolating from the family to protect my feelings and psychological well-being. I am wary of attending because of this extended history of casual family cruelty that I find so debilitating. What Guy Winch recommends makes sense, but I am not sure I can figure out how to turn his advice into bit-size portions. Something that I can actually enact.

It is food for thought, and if I am going to find relief from the obsession and compulsion, I am going to have to determine my own autopoietic response to the dynamic contextual conditions of my mentally ill family system.

autonomy and autopoiesis – the difference a concept can make to mental health #recovery #mentalwellness

July 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

A brief word about the difference between autonomy and autopoiesis. The definition of autonomy is a concept of self-governing, whether it applies to government or individuals. Autonomy implies self-determination as separable from the environmental conditions within which this autonomous ability takes place.

The idea of autonomy is alluring, as it connotes the power to self-direct despite constraining environmental conditions. It would be interesting to see if there is actually any scientific support for this idea. My guess is that the idea of autonomy might be comforting because it suggests self-will is our ultimate strength to improve our lives or our living conditions. However, autonomy may be an anachronistic concept when we consider the survival of our human existence as wholly dependent on our environmental conditions. In fact, we do not exist as separable living entities from the environmental conditions that sustain us. Where does autonomy fit in an ecological system?

Autopoiesis posits self-will in relation to the environmental conditions that sustain us. We have autopoietic properties that allow us to re-structure our connection to ever changing environmental conditions. Whether we are connecting to basic biological realities like time of day, temperature and atmospheric conditions, or whether we are connecting to social situations with family, peers, colleagues and friends, we are constantly adjusting our autopoietic response to these relationships. In this sense, our self-will is only as empowered as we perceive ourselves to be in any given situation, and our self-actualization is only as inactive as our abilities to take action within any given situation.

For example, for the past couple of weeks I have been going to work in construction with an injured knee. I have been taking pain killers and anti-inflammatories to help keep the pain to a manageable level. I have been moving more slowly and carefully around the job site. I have been telling myself that I can’t miss a day of work. I have been feeling fearful about my future employment, and my future health, imagining I will have to have my knee replaced.

The thoughts and feelings that I have been using to guide my autopoietic response to my job security and my financial well-being have actually been self-destructive but I kept hoping the situation would improve if I just persevered.

Finally I accepted my husband’s advise and sought medical treatment for my knee. In an instant, as he explained the injury and the structures involved, and the care needed, my thoughts and feelings changed. My autopoietic response adapted to these changing environmental conditions – I had new information that broadened my perspective and deepened my understanding. This change informed my new autopoietic response to my work situation. First, I cancelled my offer to go back up the ladder in the evening to pain a window sill after dark to avoid a wasps nest. Second I booked off work for the day so I could have three days to aid the recovery of my knee. I knew that going to work today would set back my knee rather than move it forward, and I knew that I had to take the day off for recovery.

Before I visited the health professional, it seemed impossible that I would take time off work, in fact, I was offering to put in extra time to move the job project along. After I visited the health professional it was unthinkable that I would go to work that evening and I finally had the conviction to take a day off work to aid healing.

It might be said that I made an autonomous decision, to take the day off work. But in fact, my ability to make that decision was entirely informed by the environmental conditions that enabled me to perceive my situation in a new light and make new decisions based on that information. In the first case my self-will was making destructive decisions based on an imagined future that seemed real. In the second case my self-will was informed by external sources of data and capable of recalibrating beliefs, values, and decisions.

I would argue that autonomy is a false construct that perpetuates powerlessness and systemic poverty. If one is suffering in unsustainable conditions and one is led to believe they can change their suffering by their own individual self-will, they are going to remain stuck in the very conditions that sustain their suffering. On the other hand, if one is capable of perceiving their suffering as a symptom of systemic failure, they can engage with others in the system and work collectively to change the conditions that give rise to their collective suffering. For those whose comfort and power are derived from systemic suffering, it is very convenient to place the blame on those who suffer from systemic inequality. The false construct of autonomy actually perpetuates social systems that deprive whole classes of citizens of the capacity to perceive the constraints endemic in their environmental conditions, and the ability to act to better their conditions.

Autopoeisis validates the experience of the individual as an inseparable whole – the continuous movement of structurally coupling to changing environmental conditions. For those born in positions of privilege that take advantage of others’ suffering to maintain their comfort and consumption, there may never be an impetus to examine their autopoietic response to the conditions that sustain them. It is only when we suffer and seek to alleviate the pain that causes our suffering, that we are motivated to examine our internal and external conditions and make the necessary changes to improve our lives.

We do live in ecological systems that are expressed physically, psychologically, mentally, emotionally, politically, economically, chemically, and biologically. When we understand our autopoietic responses to these environmental conditions we are much better informed to make productive changes in our lives that actually influence the future formation of our environmental conditions.

We are all in this together, for the good of all concerned.

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