Patterns and Chaos

All science is the study of patterns. Biology is the study of patterns among living organisms. Chemistry is the study of elemental patterns. Sociology is the study of patterns of human behavior among humans in groups; psychology is the study of patterns of human behavior in individuals.

Human beings are hard-wired for patterns. The first thing that a human infant recognizes is the human face, or any representation of a two eyes over one nose over one mouth pattern, no matter how minimally rendered. We seek patterns, rely on them, create them. Our traffic laws are based on patterns, our worship services, our meals, our education system. Language is built of letters and sounds in patterns, from a baby’s first words to Green Eggs and Ham to booze-fueled late-night philosophy debates to Hamlet. Music, table manners, architecture, the route you take to work, the way I brush my teeth: all patterns.

Mental illness is, at bottom, a pattern disruptor. Healthy people have daily patterns of high energy, low energy, and sleep. A person who is ill with depression becomes unpredictable and may sleep very little or a great deal, and may experience no periods of high energy. Schizophrenia disrupts patterns of cognition; depression and bipolar disrupt patterns of mood and energy; personality disorders disrupt patterns of identity.

Behaviorism is based on predictable human reactions to stimuli, simple cause-and-effect relationships. Parenting a neurotypical child, while not easy, is usually pretty straight-foward until adolescence if parents and other caregivers are reasonably consistent. Humans will repeat behavior that has consequences that feel good; behavior that has results that feel bad will become extinct.

Lay aside for a moment the significant debate about behaviorism, because right or wrong it’s the foundation of most parenting advice in modern America. It’s the thinking behind the vast majority of the criticism that we parents of children with emotional and behavioral differences receive. From the nasty onlooker in the grocery who says, “If that was my kid I’d give his ass a good whipping and straighten him out!” to the sticker charts that books advise to Supernanny’s naughty chair, it’s all based on a fundamental assumption that we can predict human behavior and therefore, shape that behavior.

Carter spits on the stairs sometimes, which most people would call “naughty” or “disobedient.” In general I would agree, and when Carter started with the spitting I delivered consequences. I made him clean up the mess and gave him time-outs. When that didn’t work, I upped the ante and revoked his computer privileges, sent him to bed early, and yelled at him. I failed to recognize my own bias toward behaviorism, the same bias that makes me so angry when other people use it to criticize me.

Carter wasn’t spitting because he wanted to make me mad or because he was testing limits or because he is somehow naturally rebellious. He was spitting on the stairs because his hallucination of little men on the stairs with bows and arrows, combined with a delusion of “super spit,” compelled him. I was punishing him for protecting himself and his family from a threat that was, for him, entirely real.

Even after seven years of living with Carter, 6+ years after beginning the journey toward accepting his differences, 3 years after acknowledging that he was mentally ill, nearly a year after we put the name “bipolar” to that mental illness, I still can’t quite get past my own biases. So as much as I may rant and rage at a world that can’t or won’t embrace a new way of thinking about mental illness and its treatment, I will always have to see myself as one among many subjects of my own anger.

We can’t control everything. That seems obvious on its surface, but the way we live, our cultural attitudes and ideas, say that it’s anything but. As I learn this lesson, this hateful, putrid lesson of my own powerlessness, over and over, Jack London’s stories (especially To Build a Fire) pop into my mind often. Just as humans are at the mercy of nature, the lesson in so many of London’s stories, so Carter is at the mercy of his illness. Not always, of course. He is a person, whole and beautiful under the scrim of disorder on top, and he makes decisions and takes actions that belong to him. But sometimes the illness is so loud and his defenses are so weak that it dictates all of his behavior.

Powerlessness is a bitch.

This is not Adrienne.

Remember when you took Art History 101 and they threw this slide up on the wall? The professor (or more likely some bonehead grad student with a seriously over-inflated sense of self-importance) said, “The French words on this painting by René Magritte say ‘This is not a pipe.’ What did he mean by that?” And you were all, “Duh, you self-important grad student ass. He means you can’t smoke a painting.”

Or was that just me? I may have had some issues with some of the grad students that taught my college survey courses.

The same lesson had more meaning for me when I took my first course in creative nonfiction. (Not taught, incidentally, by a grad student, self-important or otherwise, but by a young professor who is as humble as she is brilliant.) The Adrienne you meet here in my writing is a representation of the live, flesh and blood human being. Not Adrienne the person, but Adrienne the character.

Does this mean I’m deceiving you? Absolutely not. Or at least not intentionally; human nature being what it is, I’m sure that I’m deceiving myself about a good many things and, therefore, deceiving you. But I put a great deal of effort into being genuine here, even at the expense of my pride, because I firmly believe in the healing power of Truth.

My point? Getting there, I promise.

I’ve been on the internet a long time. My dad gave me a computer and a 33k modem in 1995 and I’ve been talking to people via a succession of computers ever since. First UseNet, then email listservs, then message boards, and now the bazillion and twelve ways offered by Web 2.0. The people I’ve met online have offered me information and and advice through every major event of my life, from my divorce to remarriage, step-parenting to infertility, and health issues to parenting a high needs baby. The internet provided my first community of parents of children with special needs. Nothing can replace the love and support of people I can see and touch, but my ether people* have enhanced my life immeasurably.

In all these years of talking with people on the internet, often about sensitive and/or controversial things, I’ve seen battles. Fights, arguments, debates, wars, and more than a few total freak-outs by more than a few people. I’ve been fortunate never to be at the center of any of those (I’d like to think it’s because I’m a very nice person with excellent diplomacy skills, but it’s probably just luck.), but that doesn’t mean they haven’t affected me. To watch one’s community fracture, even when the fracture is timely and appropriate, is not fun.

I wonder how much of this heartache could be avoided if we all remembered that we are characters here in this placeless, spaceless world of the internet. No matter how honest we may strive to be, we are still characters, built of ones and zeros, presented for public view.

When someone attacks me on the internet, I know that they are removed from me, that they are attacking the character Adrienne, not the person Adrienne. That gives me some measure of emotional safety, something I sorely need as a writer who divulges a great deal of personal information for public consumption. I hope that I am open to the thoughtful opinions (positive and negative) that come my way, but for the mean-spirited attacks, I breathe deep and think to myself, “That person doesn’t know me.” Because that angry, bitter person who feel the need to call me names? Also a character, a representation.

In all of life, alone or in company, online or face-to-face, be kind. There is a real person behind every internet character you meet. Even when you disagree or someone treats you badly, show the world what it means to walk around wearing your dignity on the outside.

While you’re being kind, be strong. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who think that being mean is just “expressing an opinion.” Not so. There’s a great deal of difference between, “I disagree with your decision and I think it will have bad consequences,” and “You’re an idiot, but you’ll get what’s coming to you when the shit hits the fan!”

OK? Go forth and be the best person you can, then come back and portray your online character as honestly as possible. Be kind. Be strong.

Next blog post: Surplus Transfer and the Birth of Capitalism**

*I started calling them (you) ether people because it seemed bizarre that all these people (people who I could actually talk to, unlike the people in books or on TV) could come to me through a computer that lived, back then, in a playpen in my kitchen. When we went to high speed cable internet and you came to me via ethernet cable, the term entrenched itself in the family vernacular.

**Totally kidding. I was thinking about college and self-important asses and the term paper I wrote with that title arrived at the front of my brain.

Life is a game of telephone…

My family (both sides do this, Brian’s people as well as mine, though this week it’s Brian’s family behaving badly) is once again bent on proving that there are no problems so great that a huge, steaming side of gossip cannot make them worse. Things (words spoken (or not), things done (or not)) come back to us incredibly warped, unrecognizable, and someone always has to play the villain in these new stories. And of course by “someone”, I mean “me”.

Having learned my lesson the hard way, I will not here recount the sins of my family, with their gossipy ways and their backbiting, two-faced behavior. No, I’m not going to do that, for several reasons. One is, God said don’t do that. Now, I’m not really great with the whole blind obedience thing, even when it’s appropriate, but eventually, through good old life experience, I always find out that God was right. (Duh, God being the creator of all reality and everything.) So there’s that. Also, even if gossiping didn’t come around to bite me in the ass, it makes me a smaller person. Sure, I can set up my evidence like bowling pins and convince all listeners of the infallibility of my position. And then what have I done? Assassinated someone’s character. Yay, me!

Finally, of course, there’s the fact that if I gossip, it WILL (without any doubt at all) come back to bite me in the ass. Count on it.

Gossip is the evil twin of an evil-er twin known as triangulation. Our families are especially masterful at this one. Of course, Brian and I are both divorced, so our ex-spouses make magical, convenient third players in this foul game.

The solution to all of this? We do our dead-level best to keep our own noses clean, to not participate in any of it. Much easier said than done, of course, especially while we still have minor children (as magical and convenient as pawns as the ex-spouses are as players) living at home, but we do our best.

And then we occupy ourselves with our own lives: raising kids, going to church, keeping house, earning a living. Also praying. Lots of praying. Sometimes I’m tempted to pray that the people who I’m mad at will fall off the edge of the earth, or at least lose their cell phones and stop calling me, but no. I pray for them, that they will have joyful, satisfying lives full of peace and contentment. They (“they” being my spiritual advisers) tell me that eventually this will work, that I will begin to soften in my feelings toward these people. I’m still waiting (and praying), but in spite of my apparent bitterness, I do have faith that God really isn’t interested in watching me get stuck in a quagmire of resentment and eventually I’ll get better at maintaining my boundaries.

The Truth

So here’s what I’ve noticed about the truth: we’re all convinced of the rightness of our own perception of it, and two perfectly reasonable, intelligent people can easily have vastly different interpretations of truth. Not like this is an original idea or anything, but I’ve become pretty damn aware of it of late. To put it simply: I’m never as good as the people who think most highly of me think I am, and I’m never as bad as the people who hold me in contempt believe me to be.