On trauma, shame and compassion…

Today, whilst I should have been doing any number of other things, I was sucked in the (usually) vacuous sinkhole called Facebook, flicking through my feed for the minor thrill of outrage, feeding my sense of superiority over all those others (who are just like me.) Today was a little different though, because instead of all the negative rants and virtue signalling (neither of which I can I absolve myself of) I saw this (HT Jamie for sharing it.)

I found myself weeping as I watched it.

There are personal reasons for this. Many of the steps that these men were taking, I could have taken too. I could have ended up where they were, but I am a white man, born into a different context. The detail of my own story is not really something that I can talk about, other than to say the person/s whose behaviour led to my trauma had it worse than me in their own childhood.

There are also professional – no that isn’t the right word – philosophical reasons for my interest. I spent a whole career working within a mental health system that pathologised shame and distress. It treated people as if their symptoms were more important than their stories. Really. I do not exaggerate.

At the beginning of my career, we social workers kidded ourselves that we were different. We talked about being person-centred, concerned with need, not fitting people into boxes. We even saw what we were doing as subversive, believing ourselves to be both in and against the State. Because of this, in the early days, we were the patron saints of misfits and lost causes- the people that the system regarded as ‘manipulative’ or to have ‘personality disorders’. People who did not easily fit with fiercely defended diagnostic criterias. The longer I worked though, the more we conformed. Patron saintliness led to unsufferable smugness and anyway,was a luxury we could ultimately not afford. After all, the system works, right? People with mental health problems are cured and sent home to get on with their lives?

Well, no. Not really. Mostly, mental health services are concerned with long term management of life-long conditions. There is relatively low turn over. This in itself creates a huge problem, as in becoming ‘patients’ people enter into a process of loss, which is then replaced by a different set of indentity markers. For rather too many, the stigmatising effect of this transfer of identity can have the effect of further traumatising people who were already managing more than their share.

This takes us straight to the old arguments about nature and nurture. What shapes our psychology, our genes or our experiences? Are emotions just chemicals? The answer to all of this is yes. We are not machines – the chemicals that surge through are both cause and effect – but neither can we pretend that the way we seek to modify increasingly levels of psychopathology is working for us.

Of course, I am not saying that people don’t get better, or that they are not helped by the many and varied science-based interventioned offered to them by mental health services. I am just saying that in many cases, the help on offer is very limited and pre-programmed towards protecting the system from overload and risk. It is also entirely obvious that those who get the most out of the mental health care system (as with all other systems) are those who already might be seen to be winners in life’s lottery- the educated, the wealthy and those who already benefit from networks of resillience.

So let’s step in to the circle.

How do we define the kind of trauma that is being referred to in the prison video above?

Most of us will have heard of the list of Adverse Childhood Experiences that give some kind of indication as to our vulnerability as adults. Some of us will have seen questionnaires like this one.

The strange thing about those of us who ahve answered yes to a few of these questions is that we share a secret. Even when we are able to see the fact that we were victimised by the behaviour and problems of someone else, we carry a deep sense of shame. We believe that at some level, it is our own fault. This kind of shame is toxic.

It also brings some rather unique life skills. We are like secret agents in our ability to submerge our feelings. We are also often have a social superpower- not in our ability to manage complex social interactions, but in our ability to read and understand them. Particularly when they involve other kinds of pain and distress.

We ought to be very good at this kind of stuff

But it is easy to fall in to this.

There is only one kryptonite for shame and it is called compassion.

Have a think about that. I don’t mean ‘There there, it’ll be OK’ kind of compassion. I mean the kind that celebrates our shared vulnerbilities. I mean compassion for others, but also (and perhaps even more important) compassion for ourselves.

In the context of our prisons and hospitals (full as they are by people like me) it has to mean something much more visceral and dangerous than what we have seen so far. My friend David sent me a podcast to listen to a couple of years ago and it has nagged at me ever since. Here is an excerpt

Trauma, particularly complex trauma, is not solved by being nice. It can take a lifetime to come to terms with, but it has to start with the right questions.

And it has to start with compassion.

Back to normal?

I asked a question of my Facebook friends recently. It went something like this;

“When things come apart – when the kaleidoscope of our lives is shaken – there is an opportunity to see them put back together differently, and see a new way of doing things.

And we can start to think together, and work together, to decide the kind of Scotland we want to emerge from this crisis.

We still all face major challenges. Challenges in navigating the uncertainties that the virus has created, as well as rebuilding our economy and public services.

But we can go further than rebuilding, and look seriously at social and economic reform.

I am confident we can start to begin considering our futures with optimism because this crisis has taught us how we can achieve rapid results under the most demanding circumstances.”

(Nicola Sturgeon)

Could not agree more Nicola.

So- a quick straw poll of my FB friends- what reforms do you want to see? Dream big, but dream practically (and gracefully)

I had some lovely answers; stop buying things and start making them. Get factories to make things to last. End capitalism. Four day working week. Universal basic income. Move to economy base don wellbeing. Support home schooling and community resillience. Finally address issues of poverty. And so on…

The point here is this one. When all this is over – when the lockdown is done; when we can meet with family and friends; when we can trade and travel and shop – do we want things to be the same as they were before?

Think about that for a moment. Set aside the beauty contest/Eurovision wish list (‘I want world peace/end to wars/people to love each other’) and think about the world as we have known it, with all those problems that, no matter how dreadful, seemed impossible to change; climate change, rampant and increasing inequality, our addiction to oil; turbo consumerism; health inequalities; exploitation of the global south; sexual politics…

Well, for the first time in my lifetime, it feels genuinely possible that these terrible circumstances will act in some way as a kind of ‘reset’, during which real change (on individual, national and even a global scale) is possible.

So, the question remains- what changes do you want to see?

After you own great silence, perhaps you are re-evaluating your own life. Perhaps, after the enforced reduction of your income, you are realising that the wage enslaved way is not the only way to go. It is possible to earn less and be happier- either because you choose to do something else, or becuase you realise that a lot of the things you thought you needed to make you happy were not after all making you happy. It took me almost 50 years to come to that decision, but perhaps you did not need any where near as many.

Perhaps you are one of the many people who are starting to dream of simple, more self-sufficient life. If so, the planet congratulates you and hopes your dreams soon become reality.

After our nations great silence, we can no longer say that austerity is the only answer, nor that the only way to frame the question is neo-liberal economics. Neither can we say that the poor have brought their poverty on themselves through indolence, or that those living on the streets have chosen that as a lifestyle.

Already we are seeing interesting political developments. On the right, the thinktanks and scrabbling to put the genie back in the bottle, but even they are saying that a return to austerity policies is not advisable. Meanwhile, on the left, the progressive manifestos that failed in the last election have not gone away, and perhaps their time has come. This from todays Guardian

Seeking to seize the initiative on the country’s future direction once the pandemic abates, Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, has called for the plans to include creating a “zero-carbon army of young people” doing work such as planting trees, insulating buildings and working on green technologies.

Miliband told the Guardian that the combination of the economic damage caused by the virus and the imperative to tackle issues such as the climate emergency and pollution required ambition on the scale of Clement Attlee’s postwar Labour government.

“It’s a contemporary equivalent of what happened after 1945,” Miliband said. “It’s never too early to start thinking about the future, to think about what kind of world we want to build as we emerge from this crisis. I think we owe it to have a sort of reassessment of what really matters in our society, and how we build something better for the future.”

Under a timetable coordinated by Miliband and the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, Labour will this week start a rapid consultation with businesses, workers, unions and others on how a green recovery could happen. Proposals will then be put to the government.

“I think we should be aiming for the most ambitious climate recovery plan in the world,” Miliband said. “That should be nothing less than the government’s ambition. The old argument that you can have economic success or environmental care is just completely wrong.

FInally, what next for the world?

Instability always brings risk as much as it brings change. There are always idiots like Trump and thugs like Putin willing to exploit and play power games with people’s lives.

But there are also signs that we are learning. After all, this virus probably came to us not from a lab in Chinaaaa as Trump would have it, but via the destruction of ecosystems that brings wild animals with their unique pathogens into contact with humans. If we are to make a difference, we have to find ways of co-operating internationally, both in the pursuit of vaccinations and to support the global south in maintaining the great wilderness areas that we have left.

Perhaps above all, we are starting to see the development of ideas that have global significance. I have been pretty excited by this one;