Sunday, November 15, 2009

Constructing the self

As I continue to work toward the development of a program to effectively help individuals leave jail and prisons and build lives outside of crime and self-destructiveness, I continuously return to the very basic question of reconciling the disconnect between "our" understandings of a good life and "theirs." It seems, to me, that larger society tends to forget that these people are adults who have had their entire lifetime to construct the ideals and belief systems that have brought them to wherever they are in their inner lives, and that in order to reach them where they are, we must respect and understand that, no matter their past, they are complete individuals with justifications and valid points of view that must be considered and respected.

This is a difficult problem for everyone involved, we (as integrated citizens with positive lives) recognize that much of the basis for their problems in living is due to immature and/or irrational thinking patterns and systems, coupled with inadequate coping skills and social supports etc.. But, in order to truly meet these humans and reach out to them in a meaningful way, we must validate and empower them to not only embrace and enlarge the strengths they possess, but to come to the conclusion that other parts of their behaviour are not effective or worth maintaining within their lives.

In order to do this, we must begin within ourselves. We must find the capacity to place ourselves in thier shoes and truly understand how and where they are right now. We must put aside our notions of what they should be, and simply engage them as who they are-- confirming their strength, beauty, specialness, and value right now... no matter what they have done in the past. if, for example, we are speaking with an individual who was imprisoned for prostitution, we have to be able to transcend our initial response to them, as a "fallen woman" and help them to see the strengths and courage that brought them to that state of being before we attempt to "change" them into a person we believe they should be. For this woman, let's call her Jane, carries with her a journey that has brought her to the state she is in at this point.

Jane's (imaginary) story: Jane was born in the early 80's, the youngest of 4 children to a couple whose marriage was stormy and stressful. Jane's mother worked 60 hours a week as a waitress at Denny's and drank heavily in the evenings and on weekends; her waitressing job left her tired and sore after hectic shifts on her feet, and she was often inconsistent and irritable because of the lack of financial security and social respect she experienced at her workplace. Jane's father was a construction worker who, getting older, began having health problems that kept him from working during long periods of time. He did not belong to a union, and was also a heavy drinker who frequently took his stress and frustration out on his wife and children in the form of physical and verbal abuse. As Jane approached adolescence, her father began to sexually abuse her, and she was also sexually abused by other men in her family and neighbours. Jane, upon reporting the abuse to her mother, was told that she was a "lying slut" who must have "asked for it."

At 16, Jane's mother kicked Jane out of the house, blaming her for the increasing distance and instability of her marital relationship. Jane, already failing in school, stopped attending at all. She had been secretly drinking from the age of 11, and in her desperation decided she had nothing to lose and moved into using crack and crystal meth. At 16, she was young and pretty enough to interest a local dealer and moved in with him a his girl. He supplied her with a steady supply of drugs and a place to stay, that he physically and emotionally abused her was "normal" in her experience. This arrangement worked well enough for her for several years, especially as she was willing to ignore his trespasses, infidelity, and abuse. She was in love with him, seeing the "real" him underneath his brash exterior, and it was the major tragedy of her life when he was murdered by a rival dealer when Jane was 20. At 20, then, Jane found herself alone, without a steady source of meth, which she was very dependent upon by this time, and the years of hard drug use had taken their toll on her looks and her body. To look at her then, was to see someone closer to 40. Her teeth were begining to rot, and her emaciated body no longer had the lean muscle tone of youth. Unable to attract the interest of another dealer, and lacking any vocational skills, she lived on the street and briefly took a job waitressing with her mother. Soon, though, she discovered that she could not make enough money to support her drug habit, let alone pay for housing, and moved to stripping at parties. It was not long before she began to prostitute herself along with stripping, for the moment still through a "legitimate" service, and was able to make enough money to support her drug habit, rent a stable room, and have some of the luxuries she had before enjoyed with her dead boyfriend (designer clothes, manicures & pedicures etc..). Time was marching on though; with each passing year of drug abuse and selling herself in various ways, she was losing what remained of her looks. By 24 she had become so "hard" looking that the service dropped her and she found herself once again unable to support herself.

It was then that Jane hooked up with Joe. She knew he was a pimp, and a mean one, but at least he would take care of her. She started selling herself on the streets, and giving him all of the money, in return for his "protection" and a steady supply of drugs. He beat her on a regular basis, to prove his ownership of her, and as punishment for any infraction of the many rules he had for his stable of bitches. She was arrested many times for prostitution and having small amounts of Meth, and by the time we meet her she was finally given a year in prison for solicitation.

In prison she has not been "clean." She has traded sex for drugs and alcohol with guards and other prisoners alike. She is now an irregular drug user though, since she doesn't have a constant supply, and doesn't have much hope that anything will be different for her once she gets out of jail. She did get her GED in prison, and can now read at about a 6th grade level, but doesn't believe it will really improve her chances to succeed in the "legit" world, especially with her record. Jane is 26 years old, and chance has brought her into our lives at this moment; where can we go from the place she is in?

Sure, this is an imagined situation, but it is not unlikely or an exaggeration of what has been true for many people we would meet in any given prison or jail. Jane, in fact, has a much nicer history than is the case for many of the women we would meet-- she came from an intact family and parents who had jobs. She was able to engage in a long-term relationship that provided her with stability for 4 years, and avoided street prostitution until a relatively late age. When we look at her story, though, we must avoid seeing it through our own history and belief systems. We must avoid pitying her or vilifying her both. If we pity her, we are depriving her of the respect she deserves for having survived the hardships of her life, worse though, we are subtly telling her that she is not like ourselves and invalidating her basic humanity and dignity by taking away her power and responsibility in her life. If we vilify her we are again missing the amazing feat she has accomplished by surviving to this point, and depriving ourselves and her of the respect and dignity she deserves for making the best choices she could in circumstances that we cannot truly imagine for ourselves. We are failing, from either stance, to understand the deeper experience of Jane's life and how she understands and rationalizes what she has gone through and done up to this point.

For we must start at the begining of Jane's life, and see how she saw on this journey. In her experience, "normal" includes chaos, instability, violence, and insecurity on every level. Her ife has taught her that she has little intrinsic worth, except as a sexual medium, and that her misfortunes are a result of something inherently bad inside of herself. From her parents, she learned to use substances as a way to cope with the harsh realities of life, and also that she should accept and tolerate every kind of abuse as "the way life is." her responses and behaviors, though irrational to us, are normal and rational responses given the reality of her experience. And underneath this all, if we are to reach and help Jane, we must realize that she is deeply wounded and bound by all of the negative self-talk she carries from her family, and the condemnation of society (which she is profoundly aware of).

So if we meet Jane with any hint of disgust or criticism we will lose her from the very start. She is carrying enough self-hatred and cynicism to punish herself far more than we could ever hope to do... what we need to do is see underneath the ruined person she will show us and look at her as the innocent child she once was and still is in her deepest self. Look at Jane, and see her as your 9 year old niece or child. See the potential and beauty of her hope and possibility to love and give her own special greatness to the world. See this beautiful child, with tears staining her cheeks as she faces disappointment and betrayal from those who should have protected and loved her. For this is the person you must reach out to, and recover, to help Jane build a life that will succeed.

But you must not tell Jane, at first, for Jane has been long infantilized and invalidated by a system who cannot see her as the whole person she is and always has been. You must begin by validating her as a rational being who has survived and overcome hardships that you cannot imagine. Do not tell her you understand, or know, where she's been. You haven't and don't-- just listen and ask her to teach you where she came from, what she's seen, and the choices she has made. Express to her, truthfully, your amazement at her strength and persistence. Point out how amazing she has been in facing her reality. For the truth of the matter is that Jane HAS been amazing in her ability to survive in the face of her reality; but she cannot see that. What Jane sees is the unforgiving criticism of her family and society. She sees herself as a worthless failure, damaged goods, deserving every punishment, and incapable of being anything except "trash." Before anything else, Jane must see her own power and potential. She must begin to BELIEVE that she is worthwhile and special. She must begin to hope that her past doesn't have to define her future. Only when that begins to happen, can we bolster her inner-strength by asking her to see how perfect and innocent she once was. Without that initial self-love and forgiveness of present, she will not be able to objectively see herself as that child-- she will bring with her the adult mind that cannot forgive even the child she once was.

While this is where we must begin with all of the Janes and Joes we meet, we must continue, also, from a self-removed place. Until we can validate the usefulness of their coping-mechanisms, no matter how destructive, we will never be able to fairly ask them to consider trying some other ways to cope with the hardships of living. Substance abuse is a very effective method of escaping the harsh realities of life; we must not discount the utility or pleasure that individuals gain from these habits. The key is to validate the purposes and rational of substance use, but empower the individual to decide for themselves that there are equally (or more) effective ways to cope that do not have the risks and costs of abusing substances.

Ultimately, we cannot ask a person to respect our views until we are willing to also respect theirs; further, we cannot hope they will respect themselves when we do not first respect them. I believe that self-hatred and pessimism is at the very root of individual failure to succeed in life, particularly when carrying an "ugly" past. It is my hope that we can come to believe in the potential and good of every person; only then can we help them discover that within themselves.