Tuesday, February 26, 2013
"HELP" THAT IS MERELY CONTROL
My eyes get far too much use because I’m such a print-freak. When I was in Saskatoon, I began to see strange patterns, esp. grids, when my eyes were closed. One of the reasons I was living there was for the universal health care, so off I went to the eye doc. But one of the reasons the system works there is that access is filtered. I was shunted to a bored little man, very interested in his cuticles, who gave me a stiff lecture on how I -- an American carpet bagger -- was depriving worthy people of the land, little old work-worn peasants, blinded by ultraviolet rays while toiling on the prairie. How dare I crowd them out with my trivia? Then he mocked my symptoms, asking whether my “grids” were pink and whether I also saw elephants. Back in the States, I was diagnosed with ocular migraine (malfunction of vascular supply) and given laser surgery to fuse the holes left in my retinas. Painless. Took minutes. Extremely expensive, requiring high-tech machine and training. Lucky. VERY lucky.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I go to the American eye doc thinking I’m having a routine checkup and he urgently refers me to a regular doc because of eye damage from diabetes. Since I’m female, he refers me to a female doc. She does a blood glucose assay, sits me down and fills me with terror. Unless I do EXACTLY what she says for the rest of my life, I will soon be entirely blind and have my feet cut off. My blood glucose score is 325. (Normal is 100.) I can barely drive home. (Docs here are 130 miles away.) Her prescription meds take my bg score down to 60, which is close to losing consciousness. The little meter starts beeping and says (in print): “Call your doctor !!!” I call her -- she’s angry. I must be doing something wrong.
But I am super-responsible. By my next visit, I’ve radically altered my diet, my bg score is 135 (cell damage is thought to start at about 180 and must persist over time to make you blind and foot-less), I’ve lost weight, and I’m proud. The doc sets about demolishing me. She tells me I have fudged my scores. Clipboard in hand, she goes down a list: what do I eat? when do I eat? how much do I walk? etc. Every answer is inadequate. As she talks, I grow older and wiser. I stand, leave, never return.
So here are two cases, one of a helper who does not intend to help, and the other of a helper who wants total control -- emotional control enforced with fear. Both of them are evil, but both of them are good examples of how entwined “help” is with “control.” Both of them are forms of domination.
Now let’s flip this over. I have a friend who defies every attempt to help her. Though she constantly appeals for advice and assistance, every suggestion or intervention embroils us in a kind of sword fight -- thrust and parry, parry and thrust. (Berne calls this, “Why Don’t You, Yes But.” Friends, docs, exercise consultants, relatives -- all are cut off at the knees while the victor stands over them crowing, “You see? You can NOT help me! I win!!” Domination. Control. One can only walk off, ignoring the writhing anguish crying out behind one. It’s real enough, but it’s a tool. To cure it would be to remove a defense, possibly even the structure of a personality.
My short list of where things go wrong when it comes to “help” (or pleas for help) that are really “control” include, first, motivation (who is defining the situation as requiring help or being susceptible to help -- is this for the benefit of the helper or the helpee?) Second, the nature and source of rewards when help is successful -- or not. Third, the methods of helping: how authoritarian, how “scientific,” how intimate? Fourth, the unintended consequences of helping people in the aggregate, since society is such a responsive complex ecology that changing a small meme somewhere (e.g. “addiction is not a crime but a physiological response to toxic substances”) can throw huge organizations and budgets into disarray.
In the individual personality, the pattern of needed help (infant dependency) versus provided control (parental intervention) is formed early on. Resources, genomic potential, and the larger society all come into play. It gives me the shudders. I vividly remember at the age of maybe six or seven -- probably because of attending school -- I was facing an uphill struggle to remain myself as I knew myself to be. You’re smiling, but to me it was dissociation, being forced out of my identity by adults telling me, “Oh, you’ll change when you grow up.” Meaning: you’ll be the way we want you to be.
So when I sit down with some big scary hairy smelly alcoholic back-country brute, what I see is that same fear in his eyes. Quickly replaced as he looks back at me by calculations about how easy it will be to game the system this time. If it looks like the game won’t pay off they dissociate. (Ever play Indian stick game? Well, DON’T unless you grew up with it.) That is, they look at the far horizon and suddenly don’t speak English anymore. If there’s nothing on offer, why should they give up the small advantages they already have, like the welcome buzz of being drunk and the easy company of street people? In my experience, which is more about highly educated professionals, the latter are worse. More complex, more resourceful. Exhausting. VERY controlling.
In the end professional helpers can hardly help but perform triage, helping those who will accept it, helping those for whom the price is right, and waving on the impossible energy-suckers who will fight “help” all the way. The trouble is that in some cases those intractables are vectors who can re-seed trouble (TB, HIV, violence, IV drugs) among the innocent throughout the culture.
So the helpers, not getting any rewards from their clients, turn to satisfying themselves with the feeling of being helpful, cheerful, exceptional people, rushing around improving everyone. My mother thought this was the definition of ministry and was much disgusted by my constant fishing in the Abyss. She saw it as no different from being a common misery-voyeur, entertained by maimed beggars in India instead of getting the dishes washed. She herself usually went at problems as though she were killing rats.
Since that was our family pattern (which usually sent my dad running for cover out of the house) it feels to me far more trustworthy than cheery, kind, embracing “help.” Alarm bells go off in my head: “It’s a trap! It’s a trap!” Cool analysis, design of some strategy for change -- those to me are help that might work. My mother’s gynecologist, who took her through three children and a major mastectomy, was strict, brisk, and VERY skillful. The first two qualities are not enough. The SKILL counts.
So now you know why I’m a print-freak. It’s cool, it’s remote, it’s relatively safe, and not only do I not have to help anyone, but also I can play identity games that will always keep me moving, just out of reach. But you remember that thing about “unanticipated consequences?” I had not realized how intensely one can get attached to others via print. No help for it. Very little control.