Start Again


I was dreamin' when I wrote this forgive me if it goes astray...

There are these people in the world I like to call flatliners. These are the people for whom every day is more or less the same, coasting through a life that has no major ups and downs. They might get upset at little things like the newspaper being wet because the paperboy missed the porch again. They might get some enjoyment out of going out to dinner from time to time. They consider these things to be the ups and downs of life when all they represent are minor tremors in an existence where life is to be maintained rather than savored.

Sometimes I am jealous of these folks. It does, from time to time, seem like an easier existence than the one I have, depending on your point of view, either chosen or been thrown into. Because of the ebb and flow of my existence, the downs are the flavor of the bottom of the barrel and the ups... well, the ups are rather special because I find great joy in simple pleasures and in the mere fact that things aren't going terribly wrong. I am able to enjoy wet newspapers.

The story arc of my life involves being sent on a mystical mission, completing that mission, attempting to get married and settle down, becoming restless and jousting with windmills, attempting a return to adventure, and then having to leave the city I call home to begin again in a world unfamiliar. In between each of those steps was a personal defeat of epic proportions that I believe served to keep my gigantic ego in check.

One of the things I find particularly interesting about personal mythology as the story of our lives unfold is that minor subplots can evolve into primary storylines when we least expect them to. I underwent a dramatic and complete career change in 2005 without realizing it was happening. It was something that began when I was asked to fill in on the night shift at a residential facility for at-risk teen girls. In line with the surrealistic undertones that follow me around like a puppy, that came about as a direct result of a toothless woman stealing hams. Or maybe I just like to write it that way.

Since those heady days of ham thievery I have worked with behavior for a living. I've rolled out with juvenile delinquents, the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill. I'm told by some who know me well that I've always done that and now I'm just being paid for it.

One of the problems with being good at what you do is people will ask more and expect more from you. It is just the way of things. The words that led to the beginning of a long downward tumble in my life still ring in my ears. I was told I was the only person with the patience and skills to deal with a particularly difficult group of individuals. I should have known better. I've seen monsters created that no one could do battle with. This was one of those monsters. I kept hauling my sorry ass up to the front lines with my sword in one hand and my shield in the other, knowing full well I was only getting beat down day after day. I refused to give up the fight until I was beyond beaten. It wasn't a simple defeat. After the final battle I couldn't function for months and because I basically left my job in a straitjacket I couldn't find work for a year and a half. It cost me my peace of mind, my independence and my ability to continue living in the city I called home.

I now make a conscious effort to avoid biting off more than I can chew. I remind myself every day that I have limitations and that I can be beaten.

I'm back to working with behavior disordered teens. One of the first things I tell people I work with is "Never give an order you know will not be followed, never enter a battle you cannot win and walk away from any situation you cannot control." In an environment that is, at best, controlled chaos, you have to chose your battles and engage only in those that will not feed the chaos. If you choose wisely you can help an individual choose a better path. If you choose poorly you'll lose your own way.

When my fist clenches, crack it open
Before I use it and lose my cool
When I smile, tell me some bad news
Before I laugh and act like a fool

And if I swallow anything evil
Put your finger down my throat
And if I shiver, please give me a blanket
Keep me warm, let me wear your coat

--The Who, "Behind Blue Eyes"

We all have triggers. These are the things that set us off. They don't set us off in ordinary ways. We might get upset at a variety of things, such as when someone espouses an opinion we don't agree with, but these aren't by nature triggers. A trigger is something that sets you off in a way that causes you to lose your focus, your rational thought process or your self-control. For some people, having someone walk up and get in your face in order to inform you that "your mother sucks cock" is a trigger. Everything else goes out the window and they beat the living shit out of the offending person. The trigger causes them to forget where they are, what they are doing or what consequences might arise from their actions. Some people are more easily triggered than others. It is very difficult to hit my triggers in a fashion that will cause me to lose my patience and perspective. However, when my triggers are hit from just the right angle, I lose it. I am one scary motherfucker when I lose it, in part because I don't lose it often and it requires an effort of epic proportions to get me there.

The problem with losing it is it doesn't just affect the situation that caused you to lose it. Every aspect of your life is impacted. When a man comes home and punches his wife in the face because she asked him to take out the trash it probably has nothing to do with her request. One needs to be a student of antecedents. One must know what came before to know why things are happening now. Most people with acute behavioral issues have been victims of the twin evils of fear and shame, which are the most common ways in which we try to control behavior in the mainstream. What happens when someone is afraid and ashamed is they become aggressive and defensive. They build walls around themselves to protect themselves from the things they have been taught to fear and they hide the elements of themselves they have been taught to be ashamed of. It reaches the point where no one can get past the walls or into those secret places and those who try to do so are greeted with aggression and extreme defiance. When you are afraid of the people around you there are two things you do to deal with that fear. You either cower and cover or you go on the attack. Fight or flight.

In years of working with teenage girls I was intrigued by how so many girls were led into drugs and de facto prostitution by older men. In almost every case they came from a home life where they were beaten down and taught to live in fear of authority figures and to be ashamed of elements of themselves, especially their developing bodies and the desires that went along with that development. The older men who took these girls "under their wing" seduced them by offering a shelter of feigned protection and freedom from the shame they had learned to feel about themselves. Sex was good and normal and could be embraced and experimented with and drugs would make them feel free and alive. If one person creates an oppressive environment, even with the best of intentions, there are predators out there who know how to push the right buttons to lead someone into their trap by offering an alternative.

In a structured, therapeutic environment there can be a tendency to enforce rigid rules behind the belief that the conduct disordered individual requires strict authority to compensate for coming from an environment of permissiveness. Dramatic environmental change is rarely taken to with ease. Consider a workplace where everything was lax for years and employees sat around with their feet on their desks doing next to nothing as they waited for payday. Then consider what happens when a new manager takes over and implements strict codes of professional conduct and expects work to get done. There will be a period of rebellion, bodies will fall by the wayside and there will be a period when the workplace becomes a completely unbearable place to be. Now translate that scenario of drastic and dramatic change from the workplace to a person's everyday life where they cannot escape from the workplace at the end of the day, drink a few beers and curse and scream at the walls for a while to blow off steam. The sudden and drastic change in environment and expectations becomes a twenty-four hour a day, seven days a week change with no opportunity to blow off steam. If you insist on making that kind of change instead of doing it slowly and gradually, one step at a time, you are going to have a few televisions thrown at your head. I've had more than one television thrown at my head.

We are not robots. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. We all deal with things in our own way, a combination of our environmental influences and our biological make-up that lead us to develop different coping skills. Not everyone is capable of living up to the same expectations as their neighbor. You have to take time to get to know someone to even begin to understand who they are and what they are capable of. We tend to categorize people rather than consider them as individuals because we need comparisons to begin the process of understanding. Yet we live in a community of individuals where we must consider the overall health and benefit of the community before we can endorse the needs and desires of the individual. It is a lifelong quest to find the balance.

Over the past eighteen months I learned a great deal about my limitations. I learned a great deal about my strengths and my weaknesses. I learned, hopefully for the last time, that I must step back when my pride takes center stage and pushes reason into the dressing room. I am learning to accept my limitations and to walk away from battles I cannot win.

My name is Keith. I am an ego-holic. I've kept my pride in check for eighteen months and I finally have my life together again. This is my first meeting. It won't be my last.