After Exit: Sick Systems & Repairing the Damage

Originally a Twitter thread, found here. Minor editing, spelling & reformatting in this version.

Putting on my behaviorist hat for a thread. Our popular narrative arcs tell us that the story ends when we successfully escape the monster, defeat the corrupt government, flee the abuse, walk free of oppression.

This is where we end stories.

Our narratives lie to us. We are not made whole when the narrative ends. The conclusion of one lifecycle of narrative spawns the next. We move from the resolution into the next origin story, and as we proceed into the next cycle, we carry with us the damage, and skills, we gained in our previous cycle.

If you walked away from something that keeps people trapped in dysfunction, congratulations! Maybe you survived your parents’ divorce. Maybe you survived them staying together. Someone cruel who exercised their power over you, in college or a job. Your own marriage. A church.

There came a day when you woke up and realized that if you stayed, you couldn’t live with yourself anymore. Maybe it took you weeks or years. Maybe it happened over the course of a weekend. It doesn’t matter.

You walked away from Omelas.

Good.

Be proud of yourself for getting out. You are not a quitter. You are not an apostate. Leaving does not make you broken. You did it, and I feel really safe saying however you did it, it cost you almost everything you could possibly spare.

But now you’re out. There’s a very good chance that you’re incredibly lonely because whatever your Sick System was, it isolated you. It kept you too tired & too busy to make connections outside of it. It made you feel guilty whenever you turned your attention to something else.

Now that you’re out, you desperately want to get everyone you loved out of that system. You know how poisonous it can be.

But… you can’t, because they’re not ready. In waking, you discovered the first aspect of radical agency: your own perceptions have value & are trustworthy.

You’ve probably recognized the second aspect: that other people must make their own decisions. They’re allowed to be wrong. They can choose the Sick System for themselves. That loving them requires an open hand, not a fist, and a lot of patience.

You may be clinging to that idea by teeth and toenails. It’s difficult. Growing up or spending considerable time in dysfunctional systems makes learning to trust & value our perceptions hard, but the hard part is trying to NOT shove them at people we love before they’re ready.

But more importantly, Sick Systems come with a whole lot of problematic behavioral techniques for surviving the dysfunction. We learn to be passive-aggressive. We learn to store information about others that might someday be weaponized. We learn to use those weapons.

We learn to

  • Justify ourselves and our actions against others
  • Argue (with the intent of getting worn acquiescence) with those who disagree
  • Defend even dangerous or ridiculous behaviors because we cannot permit any doubt
  • Evade anything that would damage our ability to survive the Sick System.

JADE.

(A can also be Attack, in the sense of aiming cruelty outwards or towards anyone who could be a threat, or Accuse others of nefarious behavior, no matter how minor.)

When we leave the Sick System, we bring those tools with us. We may not want them, but they’re what we have. They’re easy to deploy, because we’ve used them enough that they’ve become emotional muscle memory, a habit of mind that served us well in a specific environment.

We’re also lonely, because leaving a sick system means leaving our emotional support systems behind. Even a deeply toxic system provides some level of support. It took more from us than it put back, but leaving means we went from a slow leak to no support at all.

We can’t yet pull out those we love, and we’re surrounded by people who may be kind, but are often genuinely baffled by what we’ve been through. Maybe they’re unequipped to understand how many scars emotional, educational, and spiritual abuse can cut.

Maybe they don’t want to know.

So… we seek out other survivors. They, at least, understand some of what we’ve endured. We share a common language of emotional devastation, and of learning to trust ourselves.

But we also share a common toolset. JADE.

How this works: we find a support group. A place where we feel comfortable. We have been relying on our emotional resources for so very long that the relief of being back inside a group feels like running at your best elevation again. Or the taste of water from the place you feel safest.

Getting out exhausts what’s left of emotional resources, and we’ve been running on low resources for months or years, because Sick Systems take everything we have, plus a little more. We’re so tired that once we start to recharge, it feels like we have far more energy than we ever had before.

We feel like we no longer need to use any of our emotional resources as defenses. We don’t want to be guarded anymore. We don’t like the habit of having to be inside our heads, cheerfully lying to everyone around us while we work on our escape. We don’t like being the person we had to become to survive.

So… we end up in groups together. But because we’re all survivors of massive dysfunction, we know how to wound each other, and when we feel threatened or uncomfortable, we will reach for those tools of dysfunction, often unconsciously. We know them way too well.

Sick systems often survive on a combination of scapegoating, fostering division, setting up loyalty or purity tests, and the reward-abuse cycle. When an entire group has experienced the abuse cycle, it becomes comfortable to perpetuate it. (This is narcissist specific, but it need not be. This is the manipulative pattern of abuse. Credit)

Because when an entire group has experienced it, it sets up the expectation that the expression of the leadership’s care is indistinguishable from the abuse of power. Having left, all too often, we unconsciously (or consciously) replicate the pattern, because it is our emotional norm.

And thus we get sucked into the cycle of maladaption. We left one Sick System, found survivors, who then replicated most of the behaviors we saw in the broken system. We take on one of three roles: scapegoat, abuser or bystander.

Sometimes we have to escape again; the advantage is we have the emotional tools to get out. Sometimes we’re expelled. Sometimes we stay, because we’ve become what we fled, because what we wanted was not freedom, but power.

Now, what attracted us to the sick system in the first place (or kept us, if we were born in) was a promise that was sort of honored, and mostly not. Every sick system promises a reward if we follow a set of processes or rules or doctrines.

It paid off… a little.

It didn’t pay off consistently, nor often, nor by any pattern, and maybe not even in any tangible way.

But the system, and everyone in it, taught us that our specific system alone offered an easier path than any alternative. Or the only path. The system itself told us that.

Often, what started waking us up was the dawning realization that the promise would never pay off. We would never get the promotion, or become a regional director of the MLM, or get tenure, or become visibly wealthy & favored if we just tithed a little more.

We saw the scam.

It is really easy to lie to ourselves & say we got nothing out of the Sick System, but we were getting something. Not enough, but something kept us there: a parent’s attention, a paycheck, a community of others.

Acknowledging (grudgingly is fine) the rewards is necessary.

When we walk away, we must face our deeply held belief that an easier or only path exists. Walking away definitely teaches us the one specific promised path does not exist.

It should teach us that a promised path cannot exist.

But that takes a leap of emotional reasoning many us just do not have the energy to make at the time.

So here it is: there is no hack.

There is only doing the work. And that is actually good, because that means it is attainable, not arbitrary or random or capricious fortune or grace.

(Digression: The concept of “treatment resistant” PTSD needs to be rephrased to mean unprepared or emotionally exhausted. It’s exceedingly rare for someone with PTSD to say, no thanks, I prefer these symptoms & behaviors that hurt me & others. The reality is they’re just way too tired to try, so the first step is getting them less tired.

This idea expands far beyond PTSD. It may be living 150 miles from drug treatment, unable to afford the gas/relocate, but able to afford the $5 maintenance scrip. Or the functional reality of how difficult divorce can be for complementarian women who lack job skills & don’t trust their spouse.

Or the functional reality of feeling silenced about harassment, since you want to work in your doctoral field but your advisor has the influence. None of these are actually true, but they all come with a second emotional debt on top of the one to keep maintaining the function of life. Its just beyond the person’s ability at that moment.

These are sick systems. Exhaustion is how they keep us in. ~end digression.)

But you gotta do the work. We have to put down those tools of power and control that evolved in the Sick System, and rebuild our tool box, or we will keep hurting others, being hurt, or standing by and letting others cause harm.

So, how do we learn to build healthy relationships with others after escaping a sick system?

It starts with doing the work, which breaks down into three broad categories. There is no one simple trick. It is never too late to start. It always starts now.

Step one: Mindfulness

Grab these exercises. To unhack your brain’s maladaptive processes, you must first install a set of adaptive, mindfulness processes. These are easy and fast, require nothing more than doing them. Think of it like clearing disk space.

https://psychcentral.com/blog/1-minute-mindfulness-exercises/

The majority of us live with a little voice in our heads that sometimes sings at us, or chatters at us, or makes the snarky comments we really should never say out loud. We call this the internal monologue. Some of us behaviorists consider it our hacker brain’s way of assuring us we’re here.

The shortest definition of The Work I have is this:

We’re teaching the voice that it is perfectly okay to be quiet.

Because that little voice is cockblocking the interface that lets us pull back our emotional reactions.

Emotions are always going to be faster than our cognitive processes, because emotions are far more automated subroutines evolved over thousands of generations, and geared for survival in the short term.

In this case, since we’re not messing with our neurochemistry, all that matters is that we can emotionally react to shame, fear, loss or desire about a thousand times faster than we can think it. We can control our ability to stop ourselves from acting on this response, not the neurochemistry itself.

(I note that one of the major True Paths and Simple Tricks offered by Sick Systems is the idea that this, and only this, system can control grief, loss, shame. We don’t like those feelings; the system often promises to take them away. Which is the lie. The system can’t. They’re critical subroutines, without which, we die.)

When the voice is quiet, we can negotiate with it. We can talk ourselves through why we feel something, why we react the way we do. We can build new, better rules for ourselves and how we want to behave. Thus, we start with the very simplest exercises to get into our own heads.

(Come up with your own. That’s fine. Just make the practice a practice.)

Mindfulness is a daily practice. Think of it like planking. When you first start out, 30 seconds is hard. But if you do it every day, adding 1 second per day/week, planking becomes easier.

Step two: don’t believe everything you think

Humans are imagineers.We thrive on narrative. Dysfunctional systems are the result of unreliable narration (called cognitive dissonance on the psych side). It’s having to deal with the boss who keeps promising better conditions but never follows through; the spouse who promises to change; the parents who gaslight.

We also tell ourselves stories. Most of us desperately need to believe we’re not only acting in our best interest, we’re acting in the best interest of everything we care about. We especially need this belief when we convince ourselves it’s okay to hurt someone or something else.

(Some of us do not care; that’s antisocial behavior. Some of us care about nothing except themself; that’s narcissism. Some prefer to harm everything around them; that’s psychopathy. And, yes, systems can get this broken. Summer section 2021, okay?)

When our narratives about ourselves are broken, we are using the JADE (from above) on ourselves. We justify our actions to ourselves; we attack our own hopes & desires; we defend/distract ourselves from contemplating our actions; we evade thinking about what we’ve done.

You know the old don’t think of a pink elephant?

I want you to think of a pink elephant. I want you to think how she got that way, what she thinks about being pink, how this changes her perspective on the world. (Just for a few moments.) Take the idea seriously.

We know (natural, biological) pink elephants don’t exist. We just did an exercise in thinking something we don’t believe. Telling ourselves a narrative about something that doesn’t exist is not a problem. We are able to perceive those thoughts as fantasy.

To walk away from a sick system requires the ability to trust our self-perception rather than the narrative imposed upon us It’s a primary tool for getting us out.

But it allows us to lie to ourselves. When we JADE ourselves, we are choosing the faulty self-perception because it’s the more energy-efficient, emotional reaction (at that time).

Step two, then, consists of using the quiet of mindfulness to question our base assumptions, and redefine what we mean when we think about our behaviors. This goes back to the concept of radical agency above: if you believe in your own agency, you must grant that to others.

If you believe your agency should be infinite or limited, define that for yourself. Articulate it and get really granular.

  • Why are you an exception?
  • Who gets to impose this upon you, even against your will?
  • Why do you get to impose it?
  • What is the reciprocal responsibility you grant to yourself and others?

Expect to spend a long time on it. Expect that you’ll get what feels like a good start, then find a massive flaw in your personal reasoning that makes you go back at least a few steps, if not start over. This is learning. This is practice. Never expect to finish.

And be wary of thinking you’ve built a perfect set of assumptions. This is the foundational quandary of ethics, and humans have been thinking about this for as long as we’ve been thinking. The more rigid we make our thinking, the more brittle it is. It will hurt more when it breaks.

Aim for flexible and bouncy, but know you can’t get that, either. And that’s okay.

(Yes, philosophy bleeds into ethics bleeds into behavioral psych. Good to think about while stoned if that’s your buzz, but in practice, just do the work.)

The more honest you can be with yourself, the faster you get to a place where the rest of the world doesn’t feel threatening, and the faster you can stop being alone in your head, cheerfully lying.

Step three: Defining and Examining our Boundaries

This is an outgrowth of our ruthless self-interrogation. Most of us who come out of sick systems have very few boundaries when we emerge. The Sick System did not allow us to have boundaries and broke any we tried to establish.

We come out and pretty soon after realize we can build GIANT! MASSIVE! HARD! WALLS! Of stuff we are Never Putting Up With Again. Everything from not eating that goddam marshmallow salad to never letting someone into our inner thoughts.

Of course, being that we’ve never actually had functional boundaries, we don’t know how to build them. We do a lot of Three Little Pigs at first. We first set up a few thatched huts, then a wood Tiny house, and finally, after being burnt a couple times, BRICK.

We’re also putting ourselves in groups with other people who are somewhere in this process. And because we have accomplished the incredibly difficult task of walking away from an integral part of our culture, we know how to walk away from individuals. It’s easy. We’ve learned to cancel someone emotionally.

Early on, when we’re building a lot of really hard boundaries on our new emotional territory, it’s like we’re Wile E Coyote, painting trompe l’oeil railroad tracks and tunnels onto canyon walls. (Credit)

We know how well that worked for Coyote.

When we’re vulnerable, and feel betrayed by our former system, we don’t know who to trust.

Because we had lots of practice at cheerfully lying while we were organizing our escape, we paint some really good traps as defense.

Often, early on, we’re trying to triage ourselves & assess the damage we need to repair.

We have more energy, but not enough, so it’s easier to set up traps for others & for the most part, we’re not disappointed if a trap works. It’s what we expected. We set others up to fail us. Having been hurt, we’d rather just cancel the next ones to even remotely hurt us. Can you see the problem though?

When we left our Sick System, we wanted to go back and rescue those still inside. Then we got out, started repairing the damage done to ourselves.

Others are also following us out. They also arrive with very few emotional resources. They may not yet have the language to articulate their needs. They may need 101 or remedial Sympathy for Others because being in a sick system stomps empathy.

If we build offenses as boundaries, designed to trap others, so we can emotionally cancel them, too, we’re saying there is no refuge. It tells the ones who are still cheerfully lying that nothing gets better. Why hope? Same sick system, slightly different day. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Does that mean we should tolerate everything? No, of course not. And no, there is no specific duty to educate others. BUT. When we left our Sick System, it took almost everything we had. We remember that. We step up when we can, step back when out of balance.

We should also remember that someone left breadcrumbs for us to follow. It may have been that one nice librarian who gave you Arrows of the Queen or The Hero and the Crown. Or that teacher who made a point of talking about Harriet Tubman, Sequoyah and Helen Keller.

Someone gave you some tools that helped you leave a Sick System. Someone put just a little extra fuel in your lamp, so you could light your way out. The people ahead of you walked over that path and made it a little smoother for you.

When we made it out, we were not perfect. If the people who preceded us had canceled us, we would still be alone, and far more damaged than we are now.

On the other hand: a lot of us who have made it out have not discarded the set of broken tools we carried out with us. Amongst ourselves, we have the capacity to rebuild a Sick System, but with us in power this time, and we’re doing it. It hurts everyone around us.

Can you tell the difference between building a new Sick System and a fuck up? More or less, yes. You have to at least start doing the work, though. It really takes ruthlessly interrogating your own assumptions. You may need professional help (a therapist) for reality checks.

But you also know what a Sick System looks like. If inclusion in the group means making a scapegoat? It’s a new Sick System. Think Cinderella’s step-sisters. (Using Ever After as my model because there’s a bystander step-sister, Jacquline, and a perpetrator step-sister, Margaurite.) The step-sisters’ cruelty is based on their own aspirations and survival, but also on the mistake in their assumptions.

They don’t believe they can leave. They cannot question their assumptions, and are not allowed to have their own thoughts. They’re perpetuating the Sick System.

Loyalty or purity tests? Sick System.

Hierarchies? Probably Sick System.

Big flashing signs here.

There’s an old Emo Philips bit about despair, belonging and heresy. (Linked below, not going to spoil it, because it really is good.) The point he made, though, is that Sick Systems Make Schisms.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2005/sep/29/comedy.religion

People don’t leave communities of dearly held beliefs because they merely disagreed. It takes a power structure that has become abusive, exploitative, or neglectful. The perpetuation of the abusive system is to leave, reuse the tools of abuse to build our own power structure with ourselves at the top, and then someone else will leave us, and we will not understand how they could abandon us. But we also expect it, because we’ve set them up to fail us.

The only choice is to break the tools, and build a new set to break the cycle. We have to always reject the Simple Trick. We have to do the work.

Ill-conceived boundaries are a major symptom of a maladaptive reaction to a sick system. I’m not saying tolerate harm. I am saying to aim for flexible & bouncy, not bricks. To always examine why we build a hard boundary first when a softer one may do equally well.

It is the on-going dialogue with ourselves. And yes, a hard boundary is sometimes necessary. When you need a hard boundary, though, try to use it for specific people and occasionally specific groups, not broad classes, single instances, or large groups. It shouldn’t be deployed for a single behavior, but for sets of them. (Examples of a good hard boundary: Cutting off a family member for repeated abuse; excluding fashies from events/websites/spaces. The latter because their individual behaviors, and behaviors as a group have a known history of causing damage. There’s a reason this is a continuing dialogue. It’s not simple.)

If you feel called out right now? Okay. I am not aiming this at anyone, or even specifically reacting to any specific current events. (really. The first draft of this is about 6 months old; I sometimes tinker for a long time.)

I’m posting it now mostly because I’ve been writing about Cedri and his escape from the Lethians, and how he rebuilt himself after spending his teens in the sickest of Sick Systems I have ever built. And of Kya, who comes from a healthier system (but one that is by no means perfect.)

(And if you don’t know who those people are… well, come play in my fantasy world. If you need models of people who have survived repressive faiths, oppressive governments, difficult families, destruction of self? Have I got a BUNCH.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the behavioral sequalae of years of cheerfully lying, and lying cheerfully, and how it becomes a form of defense. How breaking it requires courage and patience and time. But how it can be done.

That’s it. All I got. Come to Galantier.

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