Sunday, August 25, 2013

Flee and Flee Again

Today I had a thought about people who stay in an abusive relationship.  There is something in the relationship that the abused person craves.  She does not crave the violence, necessarily, just the brain-effects that the violence provides her with. She accepts the violence as concomitant with the other.

And what is the other?  Perhaps it is the thrill of victory.  Living with an abusive person is like always being on the hunt, always having to read the environment for potential danger, as well as for potential sustenance.  The abuser provides the danger, but not always. Sometimes he provides the sustenance: peace and calm and even affectionate attention. Either outcome is unpredictable, however, so she must always be on the lookout for both.

Living in such a relationship is like constantly being in a fight or flight situation--never being able to relax. But the person who is hyperalert is a person who thrives in such a situation. She feels good about having survived, of having gotten the goods, even when she occasionally pays with physical or emotional pain. Unfortunately, she gets addicted to the thrill of victory and tries to make it happen, to reproduce the circumstances of triumph in other relationships, even the abusive one she wants to escape. 

And she does want to escape. Who wouldn't want to escape frequent near-death experiences in one's own home?  But fleeing (and occasionally fighting) is the goal of the agon and is therefore what causes her to feel good when she reaches it. Once she escapes, however, she will eventually crave that situation of fight-or-flight that resulted in her triumphing over death and feeling that exhilaration.  It's a kind of adrenalin addiction, I think, similar to that experienced by a dare-devil pilot or extreme athlete or combat soldier.

It's interesting, I think, that people heap scorn upon anyone these days who wants to suggest that an abused person (especially a woman) might play a role in her captivity, however small.  Don't blame the victim, they say.  "It's not her fault; it's the man's fault. He's the only culprit." But it's not that cut and dried, though we would like it to be.  Despite all the help people currently have to avoid establishing relationships with abusers or to escape those situations, including shelters and mental health professionals, educational materials and even more stringent laws to punish the abusers, they are still ending up victims. Why is that? Why do people still let themselves in for that?

I think that it's simply much more complicated than it first appears to be. How do people end up in abusive relationships? Well, there may be a variety of reasons for that. But once there, some stay. Those are the ones who puzzle the people who want to help.  Why do they stay? There are a lot of theories out there, but one I'd like to offer is that the abused and the abuser are co-dependent. Each is getting something out of the relationship. Both are suffering from brain chemistry that causes them to behave in a way that is not only counterproductive but may sometimes be downright toxic or even lethal.  That they don't change may be because what they are getting from the survival-mode existence is something they need and don't know how to get in a way that is more constructive.

But those directly involved in the abusive relationship are not the only ones affected by it.  If there are children, they suffer, too.  Even if they themselves are not being abused, they experience the same struggle for survival watching their parents go at it in their presence, except for them it can be much worse because they didn't create the situation and have very little control over it.  They might attempt to exert control by trying to intervene during a fight, by escaping temporarily, by running away, by acting out in school, by getting in trouble or getting hurt--all ways that work for a while, either to bring their parents together or break them apart or at least distract them for a time.

But all the while this is happening, the children are living with the daily struggle for survival, learning to deal with the dilemma of loved ones fighting--having to take sides but not wanting to. And those who succeed in figuring it out, who survive the situation, get something out of their success.  They experience the thrill of victory, too, and later, when they grow up and do finally escape for good, they crave that same intense, ultimately life-affirming experience they had when they were children.  And that's what it is--life-affirming.  The adrenalin junkie might be addicted to that high he gets from courting and then jilting death--the neurochemicals that pour into his brain during and after a struggle to survive--but he is also affirming life, and that is exhilarating.  And in this modern, safe, comfortable world where the true struggle for survival is almost non-existent, there are few opportunities for such exhilaration.

This, then, may be one of the reasons abused (or abusing) people stay in such painful relationships--they grew up in an abusive household, which means they not only inherited the brain chemistry of people who crave the agon, but they learned how to create it and play their parts in it.  That there are other, better methods does not occur to them, of if it does, then they are afraid to try them for fear they will not work.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Uncovering Happiness

The pursuit of happiness is something we like to think of as constitutionally guaranteed in this country. We have the right to pursue happiness, whatever that might be for us, as long as we don't run afoul of the law. Like many people, I used to think happiness was some elusive state, difficult if not impossible to achieve. One who is unhappy must do something, go somewhere, change somehow in order to be happy. If only I could figure out what that something was, I could be happy.

Lately, however, I've been thinking that happiness is not something "out there," in the future or in another place, a state that I have to get to. Rather, I've come to believe that happiness is a quality I already possess, something that exists within me and need only be uncovered, drawn out, revealed.

My brain chemistry works to muffle happiness, to hide its existence, to prevent me from experiencing it. Why is it doing this? I suppose it's trying to protect me from what it mistakenly believes are mortal threats to my physical body. Happiness is, after all, a state of relaxation. To feel happy is to experience a time away from vigilance, to dwell in a place where peace and cooperation, creativity and curiosity hold sway.  If one is afraid for one's life, one cannot afford to relax, to be curious, friendly, open, joyous, inventive--that is, happy. One must concentrate on surviving.

Hyperalert people whose brains make them believe they are in danger cannot afford to relax vigilance.  They must stay alert to attacks from the outside world where predators lurk, where hunger and hurt await. Unfortunately, the source of the threat they feel is the brain itself, causing pain in the name of survival.

The hyperalert brain is creating a kind of autoimmune disorder, you might say. Autoimmune disorders occur when the body mistakenly believes its own tissues are a threat; it treats its internal tissues like external invaders. In much the same way, when the brain produces fear-inducing chemicals, the mind does not recognize the threat as internal and therefore harmless; instead it immediately looks outside the body for the cause of the fear, for the invader; and when it finds something, it responds by fighting the perceived threat or fleeing from it. The mind's response is like the body's response: it acts to protect the organism.

What does the mind do? It prompts the body to attack, perhaps, through yelling or hitting. Or it prompts the body to flee through literal or figurative running: taking to one's bed and refusing to get up and go to work, for instance, or escaping via a tried-and-true route, such as changing jobs or drinking alcohol or gambling.

Though it may seem such actions are intended to remove obstacles to happiness ("If I could only find a job I like"; "If I can just get enough money to pay my bills"), they are in effect creating those obstacles by perpetuating readiness for a threat that doesn't exist.  It's as if the person is patrolling through a war zone, anxiously alert for the hidden mine that will take his legs or even his life. "Be alert or be inert," as soldiers say. But that kind of vigilance takes its toll, even when the threat is real. At least a real war will end at some point and if he survives, the soldier will be safe. When the war is brain-created, there's no actual reason for vigilance and thus no hope of safety--no hope for a future happiness.

So, what to do? Look for the happiness that is hiding behind the artificial cloud the brain creates. Dispel the cloud, and reveal the sunshine behind it. Simple--but, of course, not easy.