Part Two of Three – Losing it

Originally published in the Bat Country Word. Read part I here.

Jared Lee Loughner with the American flag superimposed on his face

Would-be assassin Jared Lee Loughner

Violent fantasy about homicide is not an uncommon experience, often triggered by the end of an intimate relationship or sometimes job loss. It is about control and the protection of what we perceive to be our personal boundaries or self interest. Fantasy is a defence mechanism. Children will often act impulsively and violently towards others in late infancy or early childhood until they integrate information from the world around them including the likely feelings of other people as they develop in maturity. While there might be a primary urge to lash out when we feel threatened, normally a secondary restrictive process around social convention or consideration of consequences prevents the primary process from being acted out in later years. You could call it growing up or getting a grip.

One definition of psychosis in an adult would be the abject failure of the secondary inhibiting processes – losing your grip if you like and leading to extreme states of mind. Losing it is what will be referred to in this article as a “breakdown”. Breakdowns can be isolated events as in the psychotic break, or repeated occurrences leading to diagnoses such as schizophrenia. To understand the phenomenon of mass social assassinations, we need to have some appreciation of the factors that can lead to the suspension of those protective developmental processes that are usually acquired through socialization as a child.

What exactly was going on in terms of neurotransmitter chemistry at the time when Holmes, Lanza, Breivik and the others opened fire will never be known, let alone what on Earth they were thinking or experiencing. So the proposition that mental health care through the right prescribed medicines might have prevented these killings is speculative at best, even if biological psychiatry has a firm foundation. None of those three had previous criminal records. It is even arguable that some prescribed drugs could promote this sort of incident through “side effects”. The SSRI antidepressants are known to promote anxiety sometimes and therefore suicidal or rarely homicidal ideation, especially in the early stages of prescribing. It is also most unlikely that patients would get involved with antipsychotic medication without previous mental health crises. While heavy sedation might repress impulses and postpone an event, in the longer term such medication also impedes the cognitive rationalization of inner turmoil through therapy. Jared Loughner who killed 19 people in a shopping centre in 2011 had been detained and medicated in a secure psychiatric facility previously. He was still free and able to buy his weapon. Perhaps when Obama talks about better mental health care or gun controls he means better reporting and sharing of information more than treatment?

Generally speaking better access to mental health care will mean better access to medicines rather than therapy anyway. Drugs are cheaper for a start and good therapists are hard to train and quantify. While the drugs might be supportive in many cases, to describe these medicines as a cure rather than a treatment is a logical leap too far. They treat the symptoms rather than the cause. There is a good body of evidence that suggests neurotransmitter changes do indeed influence thinking and behavior, but many of the causes for those fluctuations in dopamine, noradrenalin and serotonin remain biologically uncertain. Stress is however a widely acknowledged factor.

There are also alternative and robust models of how and why some people suffer breakdowns that are psychologically based rather than biological, one of which, discussed here, is Gregory Bateson’s Double Bind Theory. The Double Bind Theory is as follows. The individual is subject to diverse and compelling commands, and failure to comply with either will each result in some kind of punishment or negative consequence. The commands are so contrary that rationalization is not readily possible and expression of the internal conflict experienced by the person is prohibited by their family or social context, for whatever reasons. After a period of time, something has to give to release that emotional stress if the construct remains in place around him.

Another way of conceptualizing the idea of internal angst is through the idea of cognitive dissonance. That is the perceived difference between what we think should be happening (our beliefs) and what is actually occurring –or to put it another way the reality gap between what we consciously want and what we manage to or think we can achieve. That incongruence manifests as anxiety and relief of that inner tension eventually becomes the most important drive in the person, often through dysfunctional behavior, often through hostile behavior, but usually directed towards the self rather than others. Commonly labeled the “flight or fight” response, anxiety is biologically hardwired and triggered by perception. Clearly it is the “fight” side of the arousal dilemma that is of interest here where action is taken to control the environment in order to lessen the threat of division to our internal sense of self and its overall well being. While anxiety as a physical state can be treated with drugs, prescribed or otherwise, clearly chemicals do not directly address underlying psychology or perception.

So if we apply double bind theory to a critical examination of the Western societies these men have been born into, what do we find? We see the POTUS as an individual who can sanction illegal killings through a drone war. We see NATO inventing bogus wars with many thousands of casualties to feather the nests of multinational corporations. We see state appointed assassins licensed to determine who deserves to die today, die another day or survive, and the interests of a few outweighing the rights of whole populations. The power and control are nearly Godlike, flying the Predator drone from a remote metal box. Even mistakes are tolerated and are dubbed collateral. At home social legislation becomes increasingly controlling as governments head towards fascism and the loss of individual freedoms. Governments implement austerity measures, repress civil disobedience, and lie to or deceive us. Other impositions of authority in a myriad of different forms also threaten us, including extended detentions without trial and controls over the internet.

Whether we like it or not, our top politicians and their choices for public policy, both at home and abroad, are all too readily perceived by the young as role models, often overtly supported by parents, media, and other social institutions. Other role models include the Police or the military, who are again seen by many to abuse their powers time and time again. The same might be said of religion and its rogue priests. Overall those in some kind of socially stratified or powerful position appear to have authority to hurt and even kill other people by exercising extreme control to protect their own interests.

Meanwhile at an individual level we are expected to comply with the law. We are expected to be peaceful. We are expected to knuckle down and tighten our belts as disposable income is eroded away and public services are cut in trying to offset national debts. Failure to pay taxes and failure to follow the law will result in punishment if we put our own selfish interests ahead of those of our communities or society. Student debt, unemployment and recession all add to the concern experienced by many about their future prospects, and for some that concern spills over into debilitating anxiety or paranoia.

Expression of the blatant hypocrisy of the powerful elite, versus the injustice of social disenfranchisement, is difficult for even the mature adult to reconcile. We see “whistleblowers” who speak for truth and decency get treated as criminals, which is one of the reasons why the cases of John Kiriakou and Bradley Manning are so important. For the younger adult there are all the other developmental problems commonly associated with “difficult adolescence” as well as the blatant global corruption to accept. It’s only towards the end of adolescence even or older that the reality map might start to creak and groan as the façade falls away. The trouble is that it’s a lot harder to put the lid back on a can of worms once we’ve opened it up. Some families and some teachers are better than others at allowing or even enabling dissent. Many however are actively repressive. Most Americans support the drone wars for example. Speaking out against the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan or the opposition of the Islamist Jihad is awkward in many interpersonal contexts. Even through social networking criticism is met with widespread rebuke, if not hatred and exclusion. That is because the kind of killing to ensure national interests is the “good” killing. But killing in the local community to ensure personal interests, is totally wrong, and rightly so of course. That belief too will be socially validated.

So where does that disparity between the permissiveness allowed to the controlling and powerful elite and the relative impotence of the individual go? There is the “good” hurt as orchestrated by the state, and the “bad” hurt about which an individual might fantasize. Both are about the protection of interests. Both are about exerting power and control. The difference festers inside him and becomes a question of choice. Does he identify with being a loyal citizen or as a self determined individual with needs? Confusion about identity is another way of talking about the symptoms of psychosis.

Occupy Banner in a march

"What of the anxiety generated by the chronic incongruity between the behavior of our sovereign states and the demands made on our own behavior by their law?"

The rise of the Occupy movement and civil disobedience is one possible outlet, but not one that all individuals are practically or emotionally free to embrace. That said protests (and then riots when suppressed) are becoming more common in the West. Day to day the paths of least resistance are to earn money, pay your dues, support the illegal wars and remain peacefully silent. But what of the anxiety generated by the chronic incongruity between the behavior of our sovereign states and the demands made on our own behavior by their law? Failure to comply with either results in punishment and dissent is culturally often silenced by both authority figures and peers. That is the huge social double bind framework in which we are raising our children. Where is the tipping point in this social construct? Where is the weakness where some poor soul might find relief? There is no sign whatsoever that our NATO governments, whoever wins the elections, are going to change radically their foreign policies and dubious wars any time soon. In fact the reverse seems more likely; hello Africa.

Freedom of expression through protest and civil disobedience remains both a risky and rare activity, even if it is on the rise in places. The tipping point for some is in the collapse of the internal psychological world; the “breakdown” of defenses that normally prevent us exercising our feral needs for power and control. Planning a homeland killing spree eases the double bind and the chronic and debilitating state of arousal associated with the reality gap. For a few, precontemplation of atrocity will lead to action when the fantasy no longer provides the desired emotional relief. Self escalation at that point may become compulsive or inevitable. One feature we notice about many of these public assassinations is the high degree of planning and preparation around them. Add the ingredients of childhood trauma, abuse, dysfunctional parenting, drugs or alcohol, and the predisposition, or the lack of inhibition simply becomes exaggerated. .

One way for the individual to purge their inner state is to invoke even more anxiety in others. It is shallow. It is crude and immoral. It is also common and effective for the duration. It is only after the catharsis that the person might come to feel regret. Many perpetrators commit suicide at the scene or get involved in a hopeless shoot out with the Police, so called “suicide by cops”. Holmes has tried to commit suicide in custody. It is easy to forget that when we feel out of control emotionally, the act of taking control feels good. That is why people who self harm cut burn or take overdoses, anorexics starve themselves and others become compulsive in different ways. It’s because they cannot control what is around them and don’t know how to regulate their mood in response in any other way. Similarly we might assume that at least for the duration of an attack, evoking terror with weapons in people who have no defence is psychologically immensely gratifying to the domestic assassin who briefly, but gloriously, has full control over their surroundings.

Most young adults will manage inner conflict somehow without explicit dysfunction or blissfully remain free of the problem. Some will aspire to careers that offer power over others through elevated roles. Some others however will develop addictions, some will be diagnosed as mentally ill and medicated, some will self harm, some will commit suicide, while some will go to prison and a tiny fraction will become dangerous to others. 

Loughner image by DonkeyHotey released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license. Occupy photo by Elizabeth Brossa, #OATX Team Chupacabra, all rights reserved.