Originally written on Twitter March 18, 2018
In my pinned thread, I talk about insecurity & anxiety of gun ownership. This piece is a textbook example.
He needed talk therapy for decades. Instead, he bought guns.
⬆️ This Washington Post article inspired this. Read it first.
Let’s start with career: a police officer. He seems like he was a good one, but two aspects of personality are drawn to law enforcement: a need for control, and authoritarian thinking. These are the two traits that tend to lead to dysfunctional behavior.
Then there’s his child’s severe, ultimately fatal, devastating illness. He’s self-aware enough to directly associate his gun buying with crises in her illness (and that makes him an EASY client) but he continually chooses the avoidance object (guns) over letting go of control.
During his wife’s illness, he’s basically alone & caring for a dying woman’s body well after her personality faded. This is devastating, watching your loved one die hundreds of times. And he was alone. This is a failure of his community: the police fraternal, neighbors, friends.
This is a guess, but I’ve done enough geriatrics work to make the bet: at some point, he started listening to AM talkers &/ Fox News. He was lonely, he needed adult interaction and respite, he wanted to hear human voices, he needed something to think about that wasn’t dementia.
There are some strong neurological reasons why people in distress turn to Fox/AM talkers, but the simple one is this: they serve as a tiny dose of uppers. Anger/fear stimulate neurotransmitters associated with elevated heart rate, better O2 uptake, heightened attention (panic).
Caring for terminally ill people alone is exhausting. You never get enough or deep enough sleep. You can’t read, eat, meditate, pee by yourself. Exhaustion means you slip on cleaning/maintenance, which adds shame, which makes you less likely to ask for help, so more fatigue.
And this is a person in desperate need of control, has been his whole life. He couldn’t control cancer. Nor dementia. Nor exhaustion. But he’s got these voices — the only voices in his life who seem to talk about things other than diapers & meds — offering energy through anger.
So yes! He’s grabbing every bit of the drug that right-wing media offers. It’s his lifeline.
What’s sad? He’s an easy client, if we’d gotten him when his daughter got sick. He needed an own voice shrink – preferably someone with EMS service – who was an absolute ally. But easy.
The point we must take away from this article is the one the author also missed: the community failed this man so often that the only option left was the civil temporary seizure of his guns.
His police union should have been keeping up with him.
His wife’s church.
I often say that 80% of a shrink’s workload is a social work issue; loneliness and overwhelm that can be fixed with help and money are not psychological issues.
Medicare is partly responsible here: it doesn’t cover either mental health or social health in a functional way.
But this is also the world that the authoritarian mindset wants: a world where all people are islands, where we cannot trust anyone outside of ourselves, where people paid to take an interest in us are to be despised. Because in that world, it’s much easier to *sell* things.
There’s a reason that authoritarianism tracks closely to laissez faire capitalism: the authoritarian wants to be the one with the solution, and wants to be able to sell it with no restrictions.
Then there’s the misogyny side: Toxic masculinity devalues emotional labor, including the emotional labor of social work, which doesn’t pay the authoritarians for their One Simple Solution, therefore, social work is devalued. Paid help can’t be real in the authoritarian mind.
Even if wife’s hospice had offered this man help, his need for control, his authoritarian mindset, and the RW media/toxic masculinity conditioning would have led him to devalue any assistance offered if it didn’t come from a volunteer (friend.)
And the end result is, in this case, ultimately not a disaster. We have an angry, traumatized, bitter, lonely survivor but he has a few strong connections. (Though those connections may be damaged because he’s ashamed of the civil order.)
But he’s alive & people are listening.
Too often, it ends the other way, with his body found a couple weeks later.
So what’s the alternative? His police union should have stepped up. Other retired cops should have been dropping in, picking up a mop or doing some laundry. Talking about grownup shit that has nothing to do with dementia or cancer. They should have provided HIS mind respite.
Hospice should have provided at least one weekly 4 hour respite caregiver so this man could go elsewhere or just have a shower all by himself. That’s $80 a week, so even over a year of hospice care, it’s still only $4K. It’s cheap.
His own doctor should have been able to refer him to a house-call therapist who came by a couple times a month to talk to him.
House call, because putting the logistics on someone who is already overwhelmed just leads to failure. Again, Medicare can cover this for minimal money.
And let me be clear: Mental health is not the same as mental illness or injury. Someone can be mentally or behaviorally unhealthy – have detrimental habits of mind and coping mechanisms – without a chemical imbalance, neural/cognitive disorder or dysfunctional context.
Unhealthy behavior happens because we’ve learned it works for a short-term result. Yelling at your spouse gets you your way. Hitting your kid makes them comply. Drinking two shots provides an immediate calming effect. Humans like maximum result for minimum effort: we’re lazy.
We also don’t do long-term thinking well or naturally. So when we’re stressed, we turn to what has offered some relief in the past and fail to evaluate if that relief
2) improved the situation
3) affected others.
We reinforce our dysfunctional behaviors when they offer simple, quick relief or anodyne. Which is not to say self-care, even our less perfect coping mechanisms, are specifically bad for us. Some are, some aren’t. But they’re all temporary.
When we break our ACL, we take NSAIDS & ice for immediate comfort & healing, but the fix usually requires surgery or serious PT or both. Dysfunctional behavior is like popping Tylenol but never doing the exercises. The knee doesn’t get better; the stress situation remains.
The point of self-care is to recharge enough to do the mental work of changing the irritant. Often, when we start self-care, we’ve got such a deficit that we need weeks or months of charge, but we have to make the change.
And that’s why we need a lot more access to therapy & social work at all levels.
Because right now? We’re using guns to compensate for lack of control and anxiety. RW media to compensate for social isolation and loneliness, the police to compensate for a frayed social network.
We’ve got to break out of those social dysfunctions, those short-term behaviors that don’t fix the underlying problems.