Working Around Your Abyss

SONY DSCI’m always amazed at the lengths some people will go through to hide their pain. All of us have pain, disappointments, regrets, wounds, and parts of us we wish we could hide forever, but many times those very issues are the things we need to address in order to move on and live truly fulfilled and happy lives.

The other night I was watching Beyond Scared Straight on A&E and there was a kid on there whose father committed suicide when he was younger and it looked like the kid had never really talked to anyone about it or dealt with it in any sort of healthy way. Instead he turned to drugs, violence and other petty criminal behaviors as a way of acting out and dealing with what I believe must be anger towards his dad coupled with immense depression.

Most people would look at this kid and see a juvenile delinquent, but all I saw was a kid crying out for someone to see past the walls he had erected around his pain and help him navigate his way around it.

This young kid wasn’t unlike many of the high school kids I dealt with that teachers thought were just bad apples, but they were really acting out because of the pain they were holding on to, such as coming from poverty stricken, sometimes violent and unstable broken homes. Especially the boys who would hold on to their pain so tight, not wanting to show any weaknesses, and yet the pain was literally destroying them by causing them to constantly get in their own way by fighting, failing out of school or getting involved in illegal activities that were sure to lead to incarceration.

We all have stuff. We all have issues. That is something I say all the time when people open up to me, no matter if they are clients or friends. I always encourage talking about those pains because I believe that talking about them, even just a little bit, helps ease some of the tension, stigma, shame, and fear people attach to their pain.

While some people try drastic measures to consciously or unconsciously hide from, ignore, deny or cover up their pain (sex, drugs, alcohol, cutting, eating disorders, continued bad relationships, etc.), some people are so absorbed in their pain that can’t even enjoy moments of happiness when they happen. They can’t see anything except for their pain. They live in constant depression, anxiety, suspicion, and pessimism.

It may be something that happened a long time ago, yet they are never living in the moment, they are constantly living in the past and their pain. They are constantly unconsciously telling themselves stories which for the most part are untrue. Stories about themselves, their pain and their lives. Stories that hold them hostage to turmoil and they will hold on to those stories with a death grip even in the face of evidence that their stories are at least partially untrue.

The stories we tell ourselves include things such as, “My dad left because I was a bad kid”, or “My husband cheated because I wasn’t enough for him” and “I fail at everything I try”. The list goes on and on, but you can imagine how someone who is telling themselves these stories will live their lives in the present and future if they continue to believe these stories about themselves.

They will hold on to those stories, sometimes because it is the only story that they know and it’s much easier to believe in the story that you know than to try to create a better story where there may be unexpected surprises even if some of the surprises include very pleasant ones.

One of my favorite books is entitled The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom by Henri Nouwen. It was given to me as a gift several years ago and I have since given it away, brought it again and given it away again no less than eight times.

The first passage in that book is called Work Around Your Abyss and it says:

There is a deep hole in your being, like an abyss. You
will never succeed in filling that hole, because your
needs are inexhaustible. You have to work around it
so that gradually the abyss closes.
Since the hole is so enormous and your anguish
so deep, you will always be tempted to flee from it.
There are two extremes to avoid: being completely
absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so
many things that you stay far away from the wound
you want to heal.

When I first read that passage about six years ago, I almost cried because I felt like it was talking directly to me. I was holding on to a lot of pain and not doing anything about it. Pain about my fathers death, pain about our relationship, pain about the romantic relationship I was in and fear of not being completely loved and fear of failure.

Holding on to and not addressing those pains was leading to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and agitation. It was until I read this passage that I started to address and work around my abyss which slowly, but surely started to close and this passage is probably the #1 reason I have shared this book so many times with people who have shared some of their pain with me.

All of us have issues, or what I like to call “stuff”, but it doesn’t have to define us and we don’t have to wear it like a scarlet letter nor pretend like it’s not there. We define ourselves and our situations, our situations do not define us. Let’s all make a commitment to start working around our abyss so that we can start living fully and completely, the way we were all meant to live.

The Ohio Missing Women And Psychological Resilence

Berry_and_DeJesus_20130506191340_320_240Many people when they first heard of the unbelievable miracle that three women, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight so far unnamed woman who all went missing in three separate incidents were found alive and well, at least physically, 10 years later, asked themselves the same questions:

1) How could this happen in the middle of a neighborhood in a big city? and;

2) Did this women, years later as adults, have chances to escape their captors and if so, why didn’t they?

From a psychological point I understood some of the  damage these women went through. Systematic abuse for long periods of times at the hands of someone who basically has your life in their hands, can create overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, especially when the abuse is taking place in a confined space where you are isolated or severely limited to contact with the outside world.

They most likely had no idea if they would live, die or survive the trauma they faced and struggled to make sense of it.

As human beings we always try to find meaning in things, our survival is based on placing meaning on situations and thus I am sure these women struggled with trying to find a meaning to why this was happening to them. It’s likely one of many reasons they were resilient enough to survive and to not be completely mentally broken, although I am sure their captors did their best bo break them.

Physical, sexual and psychological abuse were all most likely used repeatedly to make these young women feel devalued and worthless.

Jaycee Duggard, who was kidnapped in 1991 when she was 11 and held captive for 18 years before she was rescued, said that once she was raped, she felt defiled and as like she was worthless. As a Christian she held her virginity deeply precious and thought she was practically worthless once the sexual abuse begun.

Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped in 2002 when she was 14 and abused repeatedly by her abductor for 9 months before she was rescued, spoke at a human trafficking forum last week and said that her abductor broke her down to the point that she felt like:

“a chewed up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away. And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? … Your life still has no value.”

What Elizabeth is describing to some degree is what is called learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition that happens to both people and animals when they believe that a condition they are in will never get better and that they have no control over it. They will stop trying to get out of the situation and will miss opportunities to escape it. They may not run when the door is unlocked for example.

Another possible, but less likely answer is what is sometimes called Stockholm Syndrome, where victims bond and even start defending their captors. It’s a psychological defense aimed at trying to survive by taking on the views of your captor and making yourself seem less as a threat to hurt them or escape.

It’s similar to what is called called traumatic bonding:  “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.” (Dutton & Painter, 1981).

In traumatic bonding, their is an imbalance of power, the abuse is sporadic, and the victim will start to deny that the abuse is existing or is as bad as it seems as a way to mentally protect themselves. They may even start to disassociate and distance themselves from the physical trauma in what is called cognitive dissonance.

I’m not saying either of these things in part or in whole is what kept these three young women alive and resilient for so long, but it is likely that mentally they had to do some cognitive dissonance in order to keep their sanity.

I was glad to hear today that all of these women had been released from the hospital, but their psychological healing has just begun. They will need time, understanding, patience, their families and privacy to heal their psychological and emotional wounds.

Hopefully they will begin to put this tragedy behind them. Their captors and torturers have stolen so much of their lives, they don’t need to allow them to still any more of their present and future. Their future is still bright and they are still people of much worth and value. They have to believe that in order to not just be survivors of this tragedy, but thrivers.

Rethinking Resiliency In Relation To Teenage Girls: Part 1

Working with inner-city teenagers, I always want them to defy expectations often put upon them by society, their community and even themselves.

Those expectations usually include:

  • getting pregnant
  • dropping out of school
  • being promiscuous
  • abusing drugs and/or alcohol
  • never getting out of the low social economic status they were born in

Resilience is the strength and stress resistance to defy those expectations and to achieve ones dreams.

These are the things I always try to instill in the youth I work with, after all I have faced many of those same societal expectations growing up as an African American male including:

  • going to jail
  • being violent/angry
  • being on drugs/alcohol
  • fathering multiple children with multiple women
  • being lazy and uneducated

Time and time again, especially when it comes to teenage girls, I seem to be facing an uphill battle when asking them to be resilient. Not that I don’t face the same battle with boys, just that the girls often seem to have it all together and then quickly sabotage themselves.

An example of this comes from a 3 year longitudinal study of poor, inner-city adolescent girls called “Understanding adolescents: A study of urban teens considered to be at risk,” directed by Jill McLean Taylor and Deborah L. Tolman.

“Anita” was an African American girl who who stated that she wanted to be a lawyer, and acknowledged in the 8th grade that the only things that could stand in the way of her dream were “kids, kids, kids”.

It’s amazing, that as early as the 8th grade, she realized that having kids that young was a possibility.

In the 9th grade she is still passionate about her goals and dreams to become a lawyer because she felt that there was a need for good African American lawyers, and states “I ain’t going to let nothing get in the way. The only thing that could probably happen is a baby.”

Once again, despite her passion and determination, she is vividly aware that getting pregnant was a real possibility. After all, she had probably seen some of her friends and family members get pregnant at her age. Her mother also had children in her teens.

In the 10th grade she seems even more determined to be a lawyer, stating “there’s a lot of people that I  know that don’t want a Black kid to be somebody.”

That year she still has concerns that a baby might get in the way of her dream, but seems less worried about it. Unfortunately, she also tells the interviewer at this time she has been sexually active and hasn’t been using protection.

By the fall of her 11th grade year, she becomes pregnant and drops out of school.

How could this happen to a young girl that seemed so determined and resilient?

Well, for one, perhaps asking her (and other poor inner-city teens) to be resilient and defy expectations, was also asking her to be different from and possibly even disconnect from people that mean the world to her, including her mother.

Anita and her mother were very close; “(she) is a part of me and I am a part of her… we have trust in each other and rely on each other… we are not that different.”

Her decision to have a baby brings her closer to her mother, although it moves her farther away from he dreams, even if they were dreams both her and her mother shared.

That’s what makes reaching out to poor inner-city teenagers so difficult.

How can we expect them to make better choices, take positive risks and reach for something different and better when doing so also puts them at risk of disconnecting and alienating themselves from important people in their lives.

It’s all mostly subconscious, but I see it all the time. A motivated, successful student gets pregnant and starts missing school more and more to stay at home with her mother, who is not working and is at home with either her own children or one of her other children’s kids.

It is a complex psychological dilemma. On one hand by reaching for and achieving their goals, they may isolate themselves, and betray cultural and family connections. However, by not following through on their dreams and goals, they will be betraying themselves, and possibly the hope and dreams of their family and community.

Asking them to “break the cycle”, is in some ways asking them to distance themselves from people they most love, admire and identify with.