The troubled waters we are in

The troubled waters of hate and violence we are collectively in are deep and the long-term answers to our own safety, as well as our evolution as a caring culture, are complex. This is my humble attempt to discuss how mental health services as a solution to violent shootings is a myth.

My introduction to mental illness was as a teenager. A boyfriend had spent time, before coming to the school where I met him, at a school for young people with emotional problems. He eventually left the school where we met, returning the year after I graduated. That year he tried to commit suicide. He was a nice guy. In my teens I didn’t really understand what his emotional problems were, though he talked with me a bit about them. Another boyfriend saw a psychiatrist once a week. Another classmate, an unattractive, geeky chess prodigy with few social skills, committed suicide over an “older” women he met at a chess match. I’m sure she never knew of his infatuation or reason for taking his own life.

While in college in Washington D.C. I had more experiences being around people with mental health challenges, people I met from the D.C. community (no, they weren’t politicians).   Wanting to be a historian, I primarily studied Asian countries. Courses in the history, anthropology, art and philosophy of Asian cultures filled my two years at American University before I transferred to the University of Oregon and graduated with a degree in social sciences. I did not know these early experiences around people with mental health troubles foreshadowed my eventual work as a social worker, including working in mental health services with people diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders.

I was never afraid of my teen-age boyfriend, not then nor years later when he visited me on the west coast. In retrospect, what I did learn about him (some of it from his mother, including his putting cigarettes out on his arm when he was in the school for emotionally challenged children) indicated he likely had schizophrenia. There were few medications available at the time. Though he had an intensity that could be scary, I never thought he’d harm me, he had a kind heart. Other troubled people I knew never seemed dangerous, not only at the time, but also in retrospect after years of working with people struggling with mental illness. When studying for a Master’s degree in psychiatric rehabilitation I read pages of case histories, none were about people dangerous to others. In the years I worked one-on-one with people whose hallucinations, voices, delusions, mood swings and other serious symptoms were very debilitating for them, causing them to be isolated and often behave in bizarre ways, I met with them in their apartments or community settings, where I might have been considered vulnerable compared to those who saw them in clinic settings, yet there was only one person I felt uncomfortable with. I learned people with serious psychiatric disabilities were more likely to harm themselves than others. Statistics back this up. It may happen, but that is not the norm.

If you add personality disorders, and/or drug induced symptoms, you change the picture, and the person.

“there are no reliable cures for insecurity, resentment, entitlement and hatred.”

This quote, from an excellent editorial in the New York Times, “The Mental Health System Can’t Stop Mass Shooters”, could be describing characteristics and attitudes of many people, including some successful politicians who think of their own financial gains over the needs of those they are supposed to be serving; corporate heads who show little concern for the welfare of their employees or the communities where they dump toxic wastes; professionals who take advanced of vulnerable, trusting clients; coaches, teachers, actors or anyone who sexually abuses those they have authority over. The list goes on. These people have personality disorders*, often narcissistic personality disorder, sometimes borderline personality disorder, and they live and work in all areas of our society. Some, not able to be successful within socially acceptable means or the acceptable definition of success, or unable to get the attention they need*, may commit heinous crimes such as rape or murder. They feel entitled to have what they want and someone got in the way of their gratification, someone pissed them off. The difference between the former list and the later example is a matter of opportunity or degrees on the continuum of personality disorders, or both.

People who have narcissistic personality disorder, or borderline personality disorder, are the “mentally ill” who do the most damage to others, and they are the least likely to seek help, or benefit from it if they do. It’s everyone else who has a problem, not them. They are rarely diagnosed.

The issue of mass shootings is not a mental health issue solvable by offering mental health services to individuals (though better mental health service are always needed). It is a societal issue where many people have become desensitized to others, where narcissism is becoming a “norm”, replacing empathy and compassion for, and cooperation with, others. Where those most in the limelight are setting a standard of “I’m right, and anyone who disagrees with me, or doesn’t give me what I want, is wrong and doesn’t deserve ______. ” Fill in the blank – food stamps, a job, health care, social security benefits, the right to live in the country of their choice, or maybe to live at all.

If you do not believe this has become a “norm” take time to read the comments written under many on-line articles or Facebook posts. See how people respond to those they disagree with, or whom they do not share the same values or perspective. (You can also read the articles listed  below addressing this societal problem.)

People with personality disorders are often liken to 2 year olds in their emotional development. They, like 2 year olds, should not have access to guns, nuclear weapons, shouldn’t be politicians, shouldn’t be playing with dangerous chemicals, or the rights of other people.

Mass shootings occur because people who are, or at least pass as, mentally healthy can buy weapons designed for mass killings, weapons designed ONLY for killing people, not for hunting deer, not for target shooting, designed to kill as many people as possible.

As long as this new “norm” of narcissism, of “entitlement”, is sanctioned by the role modeling of public figures there will be killings. Making the weapons unavailable for mass shootings is only a first but crucial step to ensure better safety for others. The other steps are complex and require honest reflection how, as a society, we got to this place of narcissistic entitlement. This place of “me first”, others be damn. Of hate, not love.

*Definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: grandiosity, lack of empathy for others, need for admiration and attention, described by others as arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, demanding.  A person with NPD may concentrate on grandiose fantasies (e.g. their success, brilliance), be convinced they deserve special treatment, believe they are superior or special, have difficulty tolerating criticism or defeat. They frequently take advantage of others to reach their own goals, can be charming to achieve to those goals, disregard the feelings of others, need constant attention and often go to extreme behavior to get it.

Borderline Personality Disorder has many of the same characteristics, with the addition of lack of impulse control, often engaging in risky behavior and in self-destructive behaviors. People with BPD usually do not feel a strong sense of importance, but more of being misunderstood. Those with NPD feel others lives revolve around them, those with BPD will become obsessed with and feel their life revolves around another person, becoming intolerant of that person not giving them the attention they need.

Related internet articles:

Me, me, me! America’s ‘Narcissism Epidemic’

Research says young people today are more narcissistic than ever

Is Social Media to Blame For the Rise In Narcissism?

Narcissism: The science behind the rise of a modern ‘epidemic’

6 Signs of Narcissism

The love story I never knew…..

Dearest Ruth,

For once I ran out of envelopes before I ran out of paper. I guess this box of stationary was properly designed for both to just about come out the same.

Also for once I actually got my arms around you in a dream last night and saw you very plainly too. Mostly you’re just in my dreams and I feel your presence but I never actually am able to stand back and see you. But I must have been thinking of you exceptionally strongly yesterday – even more so than I usually do which is a lot. Because I remember that there was a bombing raid on and I ran into this apartment house to find you and you came out of a door and ran right into my arms. I could almost feel you in my arms and your cheek against mine and you looked very happy to see me too. Just like the first nite we met in New York – remember? Anyway it seemed so real that I woke up and was rather startled – I couldn’t figure out where I was. Next time you leave my dreams take me with you please?

Well a week from today is Valentines Day my darling and if everything goes right we will be able to mail these letters tomorrow and you will get this one not too far after the 14th. In which case will you be my Valentine? I know you will because you always have and it’s lucky I am for your the sweetest Valentine a man could ever hope for. Darling I love you very much, more than I can ever tell you and I can only hope that I can soon be with you so I can demonstrate in various little ways how great is my love for you. This year I haven’t a Valentines Day remembrance to send you. But next year I hope to bring you one personally.

Until that happy day my darling we’ll just wait and be patient. Knowing that our love and life together will be all the sweeter for our separation.

All my love,
Harry

P.S. I can’t say where I am of course but to ease your mind I can say that we are proceeding to an area relatively free from dangers. HH

 

a little locket of mom’s with a picture of dad and herself, likely from before they were married, maybe high school days.

Written February 7, 1945, this letter, written by my father to my mom while he was on a minesweeper in during WWII, was written only weeks after his ship participated in the Invasion of Lingayen Gulf, an allied amphibious operation in the Philippines to retake the bay from the Japanese. It was an operation similar to the more well known invasion of Normandy, with dozens of ship casualties, mostly from kamikaze attacks. He describes the invasion in a letter to his mother written in March of the same year. After describing the line up of ships ready to attack, he writes, “everyone has to wait until the cocky little minesweepers run in by the beaches to sweep for any stray mines before the first waves of landing craft come in. The whole gulf had been previously swept by us and the big minesweepers the 3 days prior to the landings before anyone else was there….”

I try to understand the extremes of emotions one goes through when at war, living in extreme danger, watching those around you get blown up, yet at the same time staying involved with life and loved ones back home. My father wrote my mother nearly every day, as I’m sure many soldiers and sailors did. The letters must of piled up since they were only able to send them periodically. Since their ship’s whereabouts were mostly secretive, letters to men on the ship were often delayed months. Shortly after this letter was written he received, from both grandmas and mom, the news that his first child, a son, was born January 30. Oh how the letters changed! They still began with “dearest Ruth”, or “my dearest”, and he still expressed his love and appreciation for her, but now he spoke of Kenny, or Ken, or K.B. – in every letter. He had the questions first time dads have, he wanted to know everything, he speculated on Ken’s future. He is proud and happy and clearly missed being with his new family. In the first post-birth letter he says he was “floating on the deck” and handed out cigars to all his ship mates. (This is funny because my parents never smoked, but tradition is tradition! The question is, where did he get them?)

From my perspective my father was not an emotionally expressive person, except when anger got the better of him. I never heard him say I love you or even show pride or approval to anything in my life, and I believe my brothers experience of him was similar. He did show his feelings in small ways. There were presents at Christmas that showed personal thoughtfulness. He wanted us to have life experiences, family vacations were important. He took the role of father and provider seriously, but was not emotionally connected to his children. And he always gave gifts and cards to mom for every Valentines Day, birthday, anniversary and Christmas, often very thoughtful, personal ones and always with a loving “Hallmark” type card. I think the feelings were there, but they were turned off.  Mom would say “ your father is proud of you” or some such thing, but I never knew if this was true or she was just “covering” for him.

My parents marriage, from my grown up analytical perspective, was not always easy. As a child I never felt I was growing up in a tumultuous home, but there were occasionally scary, volatile arguments behind closed doors. In many ways my parents were equal partners making major decisions together, in other ways it was a patriarchal home.

After reading letters between them before they married, as well as the small spiral notebooks kept in some secret place (a milk box or mail box?) in which they wrote notes to each other when Dad, in college, was working a graveyard shift, and Mom, younger than him, and still in high school was living with her mother, I have come to know how deep their friendship was, the strong values they shared, and the dreams they had and worked toward in their life together. I have learned their’s was a love story I never knew.

I think Dad may well have suffered from some degree of PTSD. The emotional impact of war, though recognized as far back as the Civil war, was not addressed as it is now. During the Korean War it was called “shell shock”, but the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a post Vietnam Nam War term. To be in a war zone, to participate in the killing of others and watch others be killed, any sane person would need to turn off the more sensitive parts of themselves. Some people cannot and are emotionally traumatized, others can and successfully turn that part of themselves back on once away from the trauma. Other’s cannot turn their feelings back on.

My dad had resiliency, his letters home to his wife and mom were generally up-beat, though he occasionally wrote of being homesick. He wrote about every day life on board the ship, especially the food, which was scarce in variety at times, then suddenly they’d get a drop off of fresh veggies, fruit, maybe cheese and eggs. Once there was a case of Washington apples, a treat from home for him!  He wrote about life at home, asking questions, always responding to things they would write him. Long, chatty, expressive letters, they showed gratitude for little favors done by others, like his mother sending flowers in his name when my brother was born. They also showed the practical pragmatic he was, he carefully asks about the cost of the glorious birth!

There were times I saw this expressive side of my dad, but for the most part he was the practical, the pragmatic. Late in his life, in his 70s and around the time he was first diagnosed with the prostate cancer which would eventually cause his death at 78, he began to draw, to write stories, to write poetry. I knew then there was a side to him he never attended to or nurtured, a side that wrote love letters and was able to show he cared about those he loved. There was a time that side was not turned off.

Dad with the woman of his dreams, his friend, his lover.

Dad’s dream about a bombing raid and looking for my mom in an apartment building may show his worry for those at home and the reality of living in Seattle during the war, when nighttime black-outs and a faux city was built on top of the Boeing plant to disguise it. Seattle was a target city, important to the war due to Boeing and not that far from Pearl Harbor.

The letters, diaries, little notebooks kept by my mother were not kept for others, I knew nothing of them until I cleaned out their house, yet they were preserved through various moves across the country, kept along with the cards, memorabilia and those “important” “dear Mom and Dad” letters from her children. I believe her private keeping of them was her own reserved way of honoring and cherishing the feelings expressed, especially the love. Maybe when the love was hard to see,  when their marriage was painful, she would read them.  I will never know.

I share this private love story on Valentines Day to show how love can be stifled, locked up and hard to notice.  How it can be injured. Look for it, it may just be scared to come out.

It may be in an old shoe box, hidden in an old letter.

♥️

other related stories:

Hearts and Califlower

“The Day of Days”

Natue’s Heart

Valentine’s Day

Animal Love

This is not a love story….