PRYING AT THE LID ON UNDERSTANDING

Dissociation disorders have been growing in importance in the minds of those who study such things — at least partly because we begin to recognize the syndrome everywhere. So far not many have talked about the disorder as part of what has made this nation go so crazy recently.

We could see plainly that there was a major demographic shift coming and that it would put a lot of older white men out of work that might go to machines or might just disappear. At the same time there would be major jumps in work opportunity in the computer world, but many of the most adept and successful would be Asian. The insistence of many working class people go to college as a way to get ahead backfired as a college degree became the new high school graduation, which had once been the goal of working class people. And the contempt for physical work backfired when only people of color would tend the crops or take care of the vulnerable.

No one expected the pandemic and what it would do to tear up the economy and destroy families. No one really understood how the international mafia had quietly changed the rule of law to guide money into their secret pockets — the revelations have been overwhelming, world-turning. While some have been wary of the growing power of China, few have considered what the end of fossil fuel industry would do to our relationship with Russia where fossil fuel is their only self-perceived wealth and its loss is ample motivation to try again to destroy the USA. Russian mafia was more dangerous than their small military capacity.

All of this came at us from too many directions at once, too confusing, and with few perceived ways to go. Our political leaders of every stripe blundered and hid and did the wrong things.

Some simply joined the “other side” in what some have described as a “cold civil war” using Confederate imagery. (Skipping over the slavery issue.) A few — and not only men — have entered a state I tried to describe in a post called “Spaniel Rage.” We’ve seen repeatedly on candid videos people frothing and slashing over nothing. Though there might me a genetic predisposition, what we see is that the person goes into a screaming, spitting, violent rage with a purple face and bulging veins. We don’t see them later: empty, staring, hung-over.

This not the same as sociopathic mass killers. Some have the idea that if they had guns of their own they could shoot back at the killers and end the problem, just like a TV show. But sociopaths are clever and know how to shoot from a protected point, like the man who shot so many from a high window in a motel. These events are so traumatic that even seeing them on video they trigger trauma.

When describing the problems of individuals, mental health people note a syndrome they call “dissociation.” In its most extreme form, it is post traumatic stress syndrome. In a common form, esp. in childhood, the person limits his or her world to one that’s understandable. It’s not considered a personality problem. We can see it even in adults who simply dismiss all this world turmoil as nasty, to be avoided rather than dealt with. They want to go back to an earlier world.

This has worked well for most of the middle class people who teach, manage, and run small businesses. But now the stress is too high, too various, and there are too few of the webworks and coalitions like unions and churches or even conventional families. Some helpers were eliminated on purpose and some just dissolved or met destructive forces like the discovery of pedophiles among clergy and boy scouts. Managers used to keep much of society in balance, but too many have risen to their level of incompetence.

We know that brains work through building structures of understanding as we meet the world. This begins at birth when changes in child-raising will mean changes in the adults eventually. The early paradigms of what it’s all about are very hard to change. The main means is through experiences, like military service or the Peace Corps or the use of drugs. Stories, if they are powerful enough, can serve as near-experiences. Think of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “Black Beauty.

As I roamed around in the literature about dissociation and trauma, I noticed that there are distinct differences in tone between a kind of puritanical willingness to punish deviance or weakness — often badly defined — and a sort of tolerance of a certain amount of suffering as though it were creative or at least deserved. These are characteristic of what one can see in political harangues. But they are unanchored, floating. Related is the powder puff idea that life should be frictionless, everyone loving.

A pattern for the future must support the creation and guidance of people who feel they are in danger but can still cope and find help. They will need the kind of early sensory life they develop as toddlers to be happy enough to assure the basic goodness of our lives or they may too often commit suicide as our youngsters are actually doing. They will need tools and stories that are memorable and relational, that include others as a means of success. Friendships for life are hard in a time of invisible internet dialogue, but they are becoming more and more palpable via our remote strategies for sharing, repeatable and not requiring appointments.

If we want people to believe they can find help, then we must make sure help is really there. This is one of the functions of modern government and is NOT a safety net but a real necessity for everyone. This is one of the vital characteristics that developed the early hominins into humans. Forget opposable thumbs. Thumbs can be entirely missing.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.