A 4Sight Story: There's no such thing as crazy

Monday, April 9.

I’m sitting at a window seat at Starbucks on Hawthorne at 38th. I’m listening to music on my phone as I write this using notes. I’m enjoying a grande drip coffee while eating my egg sandwich. The sun is shining brightly which isn’t that common here this time of year. Despite life’s tribulations I’m feeling good, even before the caffeine started kicking in. All hell could break loose around me and I wouldn’t know. It just might.

This location is a known street people scene. There’s often a group of them strewn alongside the brick side of the building on the side street. They’re generally harmless. Their anxiety is palpable, yes, but they mostly keep quiet and seem to be nice to each other. I once bought one of them a backpack at the nearby buffalo exchange as he had a sign out requesting one. It was only like $10. The thought of giving money - even indirectly like if he sold it - doesn’t work for me. As it was cheap enough I presumed he really needed it. I’ll help people although I detest dishonesty. His selling it would have felt like a betrayal. Regardless, I’m broke these days so handouts are not an option. Just as well probably.

The second police car just left. The street people - about 8 of them, 2 women - clapped as the male and female police officers looked on without malice. Of course, now, there’s another officer catty-corner handling a person at the bus stop with an overflowing shopping cart. His stay is much shorter than the first cars here. Law enforcement must hate this. I’m guessing this is a daily if not hourly activity for most of them. I wonder if they have specific training around these matters and this population. I’m sure the retail folk are beleaguered. Retail and police work is hard enough, right?

It was about 6 months ago, I think, when I was working here and a woman began yelling at the person behind the counter. He wouldn’t let her use the bathroom. Said it was only for customers. She said she had bought a drink earlier. He said it was too long ago - I think it was 1 and she made her purchase around 9 they said - so no go. I knew it was a no-win situation but he was stalwart. Stubborn perhaps, but he does work here so who knows what he deals with. Still does. Just saw him sweeping the sidewalk around the people hanging there.

Anyway, I have gotten involved in situations like this before. I find them really easy to handle. This time I tried to intercede but her proximity to the counter wouldn’t let me get her attention and he certainly wasn’t letting me bud in. Can’t blame him I guess. He doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall.

Eventually she went outside. However, they have tables out front of which she and all her stuff had already taken over one. After her ouster, she decided she’d do ballet in front of the door in a gleeful yet defiant manner. Fortunately for the store they have another entrance. I think it was another 45 minutes before an officer arrived. His conversation with the woman was fairly brief and uneventful. A After about five minutes she left taking her stuff with her. The scene was over.

About a year and a half ago I was sitting in a cafe on the main floor of an office building where I worked. It was cold, maybe 40°, and rainy. A man pushing a shopping cart entered the large and open space. Clearly he had been there before and it had not gone well. Within a minute he and the couple behind the counter were raising their voices at each other. I walked over to the table where he had ended and sat down.

“What’s your name?” I asked. If agitation were on a scale of one to a hundred, he went from 90 to 10 in a second. “Matthew” he responded. We continued talking about nothing in general although he mentioned his mother of whom he was fond. He’d raise his voice as he and the couple kept interacting but would go right back to a civil level when he said something to me.

As I looked around at the half a dozen or so customers present I could see they were very tense. They kept quiet, alert, to themselves and as still as possible while they went about whatever they were doing; eating, on their computer, using their phone. There was a burly guy towards the back who was standing and paying attention. At some point I think he threatened having Matthew removed as he had done before.

One odd moment occurred when Matthew made a derogatory comment to the female person behind the counter. That was clearly out of line - if you can even imagine my thinking that - and I told Matthew so, saying his mother would not approve. He complied and didn’t make further gender-based comments although they kept cursing at each other. All in all it was pretty surreal. And then it went way beyond that.

After about five minutes all together Matthew had had enough. He stood up and raised a metal chair over his head. Ready to throw it down, he paused. He realized that I was sitting, facing him, about six feet away. If he continued there would have been a good chance I might get hurt. I didn’t move though. And that was when the magic happened: he made a 180° turn and threw it down in the other direction where nobody was present. He left shortly after without force.

I know these people. There’s a whole other story explaining that. Maybe I’ll write that too one day. I’m not afraid of these people. Yet one more lengthy story there as well. But what I will tell you now is this; there’s no such thing as crazy. There’s only what we - well, you really - don’t understand. Let me help with that.

The DSM - what mental health professionals use as the Bible for diagnosing behavior problems - is a mess. Even the National Institutes of Mental Health - our Federal and National authority on the matter - thinks so. However, the most recent edition does at least reference something called Developmental Trauma (DT). This is the ugly part.

High Noon
To clarify, I am not a mental health professional in any sense. However, I can describe to you what DT is in direct and easy to understand terms. DT is losing the lottery at birth. It happens when one parent abuses you, and that doesn't even have to be sexual or physical. It can even be emotional at that stage because, understandably, an infant is very vulnerable. But that's not the worst part because, as I understand it, a developing human still has the chance.

The really crappy part is that the other parent doesn't protect you. That could be because they are tacitly involved, but it can also mean they are ignorant of what is going on - although it's hard to imagine that any adult who is somehwat aware of the world could tell - or unable to do so perhaps because of their own abuse risk, or, of course, not present altogether. The point being that, from the outset and at a very young age, the child is defenseless, left to absorb the abuse and taught that there is nothing else.

Generally, although there can be other circumstances - like with adoptions, forster homes or even divorce - that may change the environment, there is a reasonable liukelihood that this new being may be subject to this situation for the entirety of their youth. However, even if they aren't, the damage has been done and, literally, hard-wired into their brain. Now I won't get into the science - there is plenty of stuff out there that you can find on your own - but I'm sure you can imagine that a traumatic experience that lasts for any time during this critical formation will severly handicap a person for life. And, if you know how to look for it, you can suspect it's being present in someone's history if you encounter this person as an adult. Here's how.

One of the key things that we need to survive - one of two, actually - is the requirement of valuing ourselves. After all, before you take action for yourself, you need to believe your worth it and deserve it. Think about it. Why else would you sustain something if there was no benefit. It makes no sense. We do things for a reason and the reasons we do thing for ourselves is because we want to Now this is on a spectrum, so some people with personal value issues - something we usually refer to as our self-esteem - may do some things for themselves but not a lot, while other do most everything they should. Regardless, my point here, is that you need to intrinsically feel value. In other words, that you "matter".

Well the thing about DT specifically and development in general, is that abuse thwarts this process. You literally learn that you don't matter. You are here for others to do whatever we they to you and nothing will be done about it. You just have to take it. So, if the other parent isn't "protecting" you, you have no way of learning that you matter. You learn that you exist to serve others. And, as a child, this is how you approach things.

The problem then becomes as you grow and develop intelligence and logic - presuming of course that this trauma hasn't left you with some intellectual disability - that your left with this internal feeling that you don't matter, yet logic would suggest that you do because you'll see that everyone else does. The end result is that you'll be driven by this need to prove yourself, like some kind of sick groundhog day trying to undo the trauma of your youth. Every little thing that bothers you or that can even be remotely perceived as some kind of slight can become a rallying call for you to stand up for yourself. Add in the anger that you get from the history of abuse, and what you have is a walking belligerence monster.

Back to my orignal statement though of my not being in mental healthcare. I don't have the ability to diagnose, nor do I want to really. What I do have is the ability to draw several common sense conclusions which I can employ with street people that present no prejudice towards them. And, I can predict what will cause problems, so I avoid anything that may instigate conflict. Here's how it goes by the numbers.

  1. Respectful
    Even if this person has done something "against me" so to speak, I talk to them using civil terms and with a soothing voice. I tell them they matter. If need be, I will tell them that I am treating them with respect and I expect the same. I sit down when possible and never use any posture that would be interpreted as aggressive or even assertive. We are on an even level even if I have a tremendous advantage. Usually giving them my name and asking for theirs is a good start. I truly want to connect and am looking for their voluntary decision to communicate.
  2. Stable
    If they're agitated they may be looking for an excuse to justify their state, or perhaps even pick a fight so they can prove someone is wrong. Regardless of what they do or say to me or others, I remain calm, within reason of course. I do not respond. It is impossible for someone to get angrier or stay enraged if you're not showing emotion, including fear. I always talk to them in a logical fashion without condescension or urging. I never tell them what to do.
  3. Helpful
    If they have a complaint, then I let them know that I'd like to assist them with it. That may include barter. There was a man who was standing in the middle of an intersection on a busy street at rush hour one. Even though he was clearly out of it I presumed he was lucid. I quickly led him across using food as a reward. I've used pizza twice. If they are the problem, then I do my best to ignore it but if it's obvious, I come up with the most inarguable position that I'm on their side. I will not ignore the truth or reality. In fact, talking about things in very basic terms can be grounding.
  4. Leading
    At this point, if you've done things right, you have their trust and it will feel cooparative. You are not adversaries. You are working together, and this is where the title comes in. Belive it or not, they are aware of what's going on. Their emotions may be bubbling over and taking control when you meet them, but at this point, their higher-level thinking is present and really always has been. It's just that you've reduced the emotional part and that's the key. You're probably going to have to get the situation there. They've already proven their inability to make a solution happen. It doesn't mean that things can't go wrong. That is always a possibility even if you do everything perfectly. However, there is nothing stronger than our urge to survive and survival means avoiding conflict. If you're not opposing them it is really hard for them to maintain their adrenaline fight feeling.

As a result of this approach, I can tell you that I've assisted in many heated situations, both with friends as well as with strangers. It is very rewarding to be able to do it. However, I don't suggest it for everyone. You need to have an impregnable emotional shield that will allow you to stay calm even if all hell breaks loose. But if you can do that, there's nothing more jarring to someone who's losing it than a person who's unaffected by it all. Not only do you stand out and confuse them in a good way, but, inherently, they want to be like that. They just don't know how. They never learned. And the more interactions that get turned around, the more they'll come to expect that the enemy is not around the corner, but, rather, a situation they left long ago. One that we all should put behind us.

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