Monthly Archives: November 2011

My Day as a Wall Street Occupier

For the past two months, I have been following, and even blogging about, Occupy Wall Street. But like many people, I have been on the fence about going. On one hand, this movement is about economic equality, a continuation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights battle, and therefor a once in a generation opportunity. On the other side, there were the concerns about finding time, the large distance to travel from my home to NYC, the brutal response called in from Mayor Bloomberg, my responsibilities at home, etc.

And then, this happened.

If you know anything about me, you would know there are two things that I refuse to tolerate: bullies and good people getting hurt. For a guy like me, that kind of intimidation has the opposite of the intended effect. Two days after the unwarranted assault on Zuccotti park would be the movement’s 2 month anniversary, and I would be there.

I made my way up via public transportation. I didn’t actually know how to get from the WTC PATH to Zuccotti park, and originally planned to use google navigator to wander through the city. As soon as I stepped onto the PATH train, however, immediately in front of me was an elderly African American couple with a protest sign. I asked them if I could tag along so I could find the park, and they invited me to talk with them. April and Dave had been participating in the protest since about the beginning. They had not camped out, but they had been commuting into the city to participate. April was an art teacher who was slowly losing her vision. Her protest sign was made by her students, and she was quite proud of their work. They were a warm couple and we had some nice conversations on the way over. When we got to the park, we found it fenced off with a single opening created by the police as a choke point. We were stopped because the protest sign had a stick attached to it. Once the stick was removed we were allowed to enter the park. I separated from April and Dave then, but I later saw them shouting and chanting with the sign tied to April’s cane.

The park was relatively empty when I arrived. A few people who used to run the library were there, so I offered them the books I had brought up to donate. They told me that they were told they could not have a permanent structure, and therefore no library, anymore. When I showed them the books I brought, their eyes lit up and they accepted my offering. There were protesters up near the street so I went to join them. One of the protesters stood there with a kitten in his jacket. He rescued the little kitty, but now he and the kitten were homeless, having been evicted from the park and all of his stuff, including medication for himself and his kitten, confiscated in the raid. Another new protester walked over and we began to chat. As we were talking, the rest of the  protest, that had gone at 7 am to protest on Wall Street, came back. The mass flowed in. They grabbed and removed the police fencing, and then moved into the park with proclamations of “We’ve taken back the park!”

I milled around and met some interesting people, including a young couple who had come up from Richmond, Virginia, and a group who, after my own heart, marched around dressed as trees.  A fight broke out near me, and the organization had its own people acting as security to break it up and deescalate the situation. From my experience working at a psychiatric hospital and with adjudicated youth, I was able to appreciate the conflict resolution skills used by the security member. The guy security talked to afterwards still was agitated, so I channeled my friend Edmond’s peacemaker spirit and decided to talk to him. That is how I met Mike.

Trouble makers will always move into a group and threaten it from the inside. One of these trouble makers decided he would spend his time targeting and harassing Mike. The troublemaker was being shameless about it, which prompted me to call security and talk on Mike’s behalf and act as a witness to the troublemaker’s harassment. Later on, after Mike left, the troublemaker told me that I had just made myself his target as well for sticking up for Mike. I told him to go to hell and walked into a drum circle. Guys like that are cowards, and crowds are your best defense against them.

As for Mike’s story, he is a Veteran, formerly serving with the Navy. His reason for being an occupier came from the problem that Veteran unemployment rates are higher than that of the national average. Whatever your opinion may be about the wars we have fought, our armed forces are our national brethren. Many signed up because there were few other options in the economy, and many more did it to protect their fellow countrymen, namely us. But when they’ve fulfilled their promises, and return to life as a civilian, we seem to forget about what they did for us, the risks taken, and the sacrifices made. Mike’s mission has become to look out for his fellow brethren, and help them get a fair shot at civilian life by calling attention to the issue and pointing out organization that need to do more to support our veterans. It truly is a noble cause.

Mike and I talked for a bit, partially so I could hear is tale, and partially so he wouldn’t be left alone if the troublemaker returned. After he left to grab some coffee, there was another commotion, and several police officers rushed in and tackled one of the occupiers on the ground. A crowd formed around the scuffle, Occupiers rushed in with cameras to film the incident, and Police ran in in full riot gear. I was shoved back by an officer, then shoved back by another. A girl who was struggling to get to the friend that got tackled tried to push her way through and got punched by one of the officers. Another officer began pushing back the crowd, while I shouted that there was a physical obstacle made of stone behind us and we could not move anymore. More police in riot gear moved in and made a physical wall in front of us. I put my hands up and the girl stormed by us screaming and yelling. The officer in front of me didn’t know how to react to the girl until I told the officer about the punch. The officer lowered her eyes, shamed by her colleague’s actions, and then the police withdrew. As it turns out the one Occupier flipped off an officer’s hat. That wasn’t right of him to do, but it should not have resulted in a full riot response and an open head wound for the kid.

I walked away to clear my mind, and a gentleman handed me a length of  light purple ribbon. “If you blend all the colors on our flag, you get light purple. wear this and you become ‘ultra-American”   I then heard someone asking for a little help. A young woman and her mother were unfolding a huge banner and needed extra hands. Athena had made the sign herself for the Occupy Halloween event. She had been sick for many years, suffering from brain cancer. Her tumor had been removed, and she said she was more or less healed. We discussed arts and crafts, and she told me about the quilt she had made while she was still fighting the cancer. Now full of energy, she invited as many people as she could to hold a long banner that simply stated “Occupy Wall St.” I met a number of people holding that banner, as they rotated in and out of the spot next to me, and it’s amazing what you end up talking about when you just hold up a sign and welcome people in.  Soon however, it was lunch time, and I had to rotate off the sign.

Lunch was at Burger King. I needed to eat somewhere with a bathroom. Occupiers and police alike filled in and grabbed lunch. While waiting on the line for the men’s room (after buying food at the establishment) I talked to another occupier who lived near by. He mentioned that the Burger King had been rather supportive, and we traded information via the many fliers collected during the day.

Re-entering the park after lunch, I was saddened to see Athena and the banner had disappeared, leaving me to once again wander around the park aimlessly. Then, the drum circle began.

Drum circles have become a source of mockery. It seems, that the common regard for them is that they are just some inexplicable side trait of being a hippy, and exists with the stereotype along side such things as incense, dreadlocks, and sandals. What I saw when I walked in was that people were there dancing and celebrating. I pulled one of my juggling balls out of my bag, and started joining in by contact juggling (sadly, I can’t dance). There was no cliquishness, no sense of arrogant denial or rejection from the group, just a sense of enjoyment and fun. In a place like this, where you are fight for a slow process like change against a backdrop of naysayers and violent police response, you need to find any way you can to keep your spirits up. But I wonder what it says about the rest of us that we have to take an expression of such joy and celebration, and dismiss it with ridicule, as if we can’t bear to have true joy or celebration in our lives.

The circles began and ended and began again. Between the drumming, I wandered around helping to clean up garbage that had been left around the “kitchen” in the park. I had found one of my fellow banner holders and we talked and both wondered where the banner had gone. But soon after Athena  and her banner returned. Soon after that,the crowd begin to move, and we were marching across the city towards Foley Square.

As we walked and chanted, the streets were lined by police in full riot gear. In addition to these officers, the were another group dressed simply with blue jackets with the words “community affairs” written on them. These officers walked with us and talked to us. Watching the some of the protesters (angered by the raid and brutality) waving their middle fingers at the riot dressed officers, I looked at the one Community Affairs officer next to me and said, “We know you’re not all assholes.”

“Thank you,” she said with a sigh of relief.

“I actually support you guys,” another officer added, “I know how bad things are.”

“Well,” I said, “we are marching for you’re union rights too.”

We talked some more. When I mentioned it might lower tensions if the officers in the riot gear walked with their batons holstered instead of wielding them, one of the officers told me that the batons can actually be uncomfortable when they are on the belt and often smack into their legs. Holding the baton might be more of a comfort thing than an intimidation thing. We talked even more. when I told her I was from NJ, she told me she had family there. I had to break ranks to make another bathroom stop in a coffee shop. They made a good chai latte there. While waiting in line, I talked a bit to a reporter and another protester, and when we all had our drinks, we headed out together to try to find where the group went. We stopped by Union Square, where I gave a shout out to the independent crafters in a little Christmas Shopping Village. I met up with the banner again, and while standing with it, we were approached and asked the same questions asked since the beginning: “what are your demands, and how do you know when you are done?”
We took turns answering. I offered her two books to read: Mat Taibbi’s Griftopia, which explains step by step how corporate corruption and deregulation has caused the economic crisis, and Richard Wilkinson’s Spirit Level, which looks at social data and shows through science how many social problems are connected to economic inequality. I also pointed out that we have no “demands” because we are not terrorists, we instead want change, and change is sadly harder to predict and define in absolute terms. The more I think about that question, them more I think about how it both the wrong question and a question systematic of many of our problems. It’s overly simplistic, asking for a simple answer that once handed, shuts down thought on the subject. In reality, the change being asked for can only come when people stop asking for the sound bites that will tell them what is happening, and take on the responsibility of understanding the problems of the world.

We continued on and marched on the sidewalks, observing the laws for the protest, and then we were lead down a street that was closed off to allow us to march. We marched, chanted and cheered, waving to the city that waived back in support. One building we passed put up giant signs in the windows to show support, and we all cheered in response. The road ended with a row of police in riot gear and giant concrete barriers to block us off. I don’t know if this was an attempt to antagonize us to jump the barriers and provoke arrests or not, but after a few minutes, the crowd reorganized and went back to the sidewalks and chose a new direction to Foley Square. We passed union square where an old lady called us a bunch of jokes.

“That’s Dr. Joke to you, lady,” I shouted back.

We began to cross the street as part of our new route. Protesters were shouting reminders not to jaywalk or otherwise give the police excuses to arrest them. The police scrambled around us trying to herd us in. Their attempts actually stopped the movement of the march, so that a bunch of us who began crossing when we had a “walk” signal got stuck in the middle of the street. They moved closer to push the crowd, and I turned to them and said “look, I’m trying to get onto the sidewalk voluntarily”

I then got pushed with a baton into the crowd. At this point, frustration caused me to get snarky, and each time the NYPD riot squad lined up to herd us, I would point out that a simple “please” would be just as effective as all the batons. That often invoked a discussion with other Occupiers about the amount of money being wasted to surround and intimidate a peaceful protest, often countered with the idea that the money Wall Street gives to the police force may be helping with that expense.

As the march continued, we began to sing, and this made me happy to no end. Back in 2002, I was in Baltimore, talking to a woman who was protesting the upcoming Iraq war. She told me she had been part of the anti-war protests of the 60’s and 70’s. She mentioned that one of the things that had been missing in the modern protest was the music, and she felt that that took something away. I had noticed and commented on the same thing during the say. We had chanting, we had drumming, but there was no song. And even though chanting and drumming are powerful organizational tools, song has a unique power of its own. It was the first form of intelligent communication, preceding language itself. And where drumming and chanting stir the soul and lead people, song harmonizes voices, hearts, and souls. And though what we sang was a simplified repetition of the opening stanzas of John Lennon’s Power to the People, there was something magical produced as the crowd’s voices came together.

The march progressed on, and many of us grew weary. My legs were starting to cramp up, and exhaustion began to set in. I was chanting less, and I noticed the energy of others dropping. We fought to rekindle the fire, and it would glow, fade, and glow again. Soon we approached more barricades and fencing. As we rounded the corner, we came upon a crown estimated to be over 30,000 people rallying in support in Foley Square. There was a sea of UAW representatives, nurses, teachers, and other hard working Americans standing together for the same cause. A stage had been set up, and people were dancing, milling, playing and talking. I took a quick rest on a bench, only to find messages on my phone from friends and family offering support, and if need be, a safe place to crash. I wandered around, complimented a gentleman for the “They Live” reference on his sign, and helped a woman clean up the litter that was accumulating on the ground. I met up with Athena and her mother again, and took up my position with the banner as we started to walk around. As the march was about to proceed to the Brooklyn Bridge, I noticed it was getting late, and I still had a 2-3 hour mass transit commute back home. We said our good-byes, and I attempted to navigate the subway.

On the subway ride back to WTC, I found myself sitting across from a couple who had been at the Occupy Wall Street event as well. As I talked to the ladies, we found that we each had rescued a cat. We were discussing all the common issues we had shared, and they even gave me tips for my kitten. They found their stop, and I continued my journey home.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

I found my day at Occupy Wall Street to be an intense and exhilarating experience. I witnessed strife, aggression, and abuse of power, but I also witnessed compassion, joy, celebration, and humanity. I met people from all walks of life, with different backgrounds and fascinating histories. I would like to head back to join the struggle once again, and will have to plan and budget to get there again to both add my voice of support in the future and possibly reunite with the many interesting people I met on this day. But as i finish this account, I would also like to offer some advice and insight based on what I saw and experienced:

1) More music. Find songs that you can sing together. Pass out the lyric sheets with the flyers. Join together to echo your voices through the buildings in Manhattan. Get those songs stuck in the heads of every citizen in the city.

2) Beware of your troublemakers. People like the one that stalked and harassed Mike and myself will only cause division within your movement, and loss of support from the outside. You will have to decide how you deal with problems like this, but ignoring the problem is not a healthy option.

3) Transform the acts of the oppressors. You already did this when you brilliantly created the “Human Microphone.” That was a stroke of genius. Now keep it up. That little doorway that the NYPD created to get in and out of the park; don’t let them make it a choke point, turn it into a portal. Make it a sacred gateway that takes you into this new world your are building, and that the tools of oppression are not allowed to enter. Come up with a sacred password to shout to invoke this travel from one world to the next, and shout it each and every time you pass across that gap in the fence.

4) To the NYPD, if you really want to keep the protest under control and incident free, have fewer riot police, and more community affairs police. The imposing officers in the full armor with batons drawn are only agitating people and creating problems. I’ve worked with both adjudicated youth and the severely mentally ill in residential treatment facilities. The workers who pushed around the kids or the patients had the most problems and found themselves in the most incidents. The workers who built bridges and worked with the kids or the patients had fewer injuries, incidents, and problems. The former may have had intimidation and fear, but the latter had respect. With the former group, the kids and patients showed them only resentment and grudgingly followed rules under constant duress, but the latter group had the kids and patients working with them every step of the way. There is a highly competent security group within the OWS structure with whom you can liaison. You also have many professional and respectful officers who are willing to just talk with the Occupiers, and have done so in very positive ways. The tension is growing between the NYPD and OWS, and you have to decide if you are going to resolve the issue, or just let it explode.

5) To the individual NYPD officers. Police your own. I saw officers abusing their power. I also saw officers showing that they don’t approve of the abuse. Every major fight civil rights has involved bloody and violent altercations with the police. Stories of horror have come to us from the Alabama boycotts, the Freedom Rides, Chicago in 1968, etc., and in them, the police are not seen as the heroes. The stories of police violence at OWS are already entering the media. If things get worse, you will be treated by history the same way those pat officers were. However, there is still time to reverse the situation. Don’t let your good names get soiled by a situation that becomes out of control.

6) Occupiers, do not fight fire with fire. Waging peace is a process that takes discipline Do not let the acts of abuse and injustice turn you into the enemy. Find love and compassion for your opponents.

7) Don’t lose faith, and don’t lose hope. This is not a fight that will create instant solutions. If it were, you would not have meaningful change. When I worked in the US Peace Corps, the first thing they told us was that because we only serve for 2 years, we would never really see the success of the projects we start, but the success would never the less come. In one of our trainings we were taken to a farm, and told a story about once of the local who worked with a volunteer to turn half of his property into a eucalyptus grove to provide sustainable wood for the community. The village opposed and mocked him every step of the way, because he was trying to change the way things were done, even though those changes would benefit them all. When his grove was finally established, someone invaded the grove in the cover of night and burnt it down. The man, however, took what he had learned, and began again. That grove not only became successful, but became one of our training areas and helped to spread the grove project throughout the country. The same thing is happening today. People are mocking and opposing the movement because you are challenging the way things are done. The NYPD burnt down your grove. But victory will still come, you just have to find the strength, passion, and faith to keep rebuilding.

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Occupy Wall Street For Dummies – Updated 12/15/11

At the time of this update, the Occupy Wall Street is approaching it’s 3 month anniversary. Yet as our nation’s attention spans, destroyed as it is by soundbite media,  wanes, people are bringing the old questions and confusions back to the conversation. While many are reintroducing doubt inducing talking points as a form of outright derision or mockery, others are still legitimately confused, largely due to the fact that the media outlets that should be educating and reporting in earnest are unfortunately owned by the people who would rather see the movement go away. So to do my part and continue to support the movement, I would like to introduce “Occupy Wall Street for Dummies” to answer some questions (if you have legitimate questions you need answered, put it in the comments section, and I’ll update the post)

1) Who are they? What do they want?
One of the biggest complaints/questions surrounds the percieved/stereotyped lack of organization and clearly defined demands of the movement. The movement calls itself the 99%, referring to the problem of economic inequality in this nation (more of this to follow). They don’t claim any leadership figures, but rather operate through a system of general assemblies that rule through democratic consensus. This system is not as flawed as the mockery makes it out to be. They do have process rules to prevent anarchy, and they ensure that everyone who wants to have a say gets to participate. The lack of a single leader prevents the movement both from being hijacked by a personal agenda and from the character assassination that we are so prone to today.

If you were to ask to have a conversation with occupiers, you would know exactly what they stand for. The movement also has a clear message that is easy to find, and is well informed and easy to understand, and focuses around getting the money out of politics, holding Wall Street accountable for its part in destroying our economy (like this and this), ending the corporate personhood that steals free speech from the American Citizen, and fixing the economic inequalities that create a number of social problems in this nation. The semantic attack has been that they don’t have clear demands, but that is because this is not a terrorist/hostage situation, it’s an exercise of free speech intended to end a social inequality. When the fight for civil rights occurred in the 1950’s,  the righteous masses did not present a list of demands and then leave as soon as they got to choose which bus seats they sat in. Instead they fought for more abstract and less concrete goals like “equality” and “integration.” Occupy Wall street is doing the same, demanding economic equality in the spirit of the 1950’s struggle for racial equality. And before someone draws offense in the comparison between Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights work and Occupy Wall Street, it needs to be remembered that Dr. King’s final work was to begin a campaign against economic inequality.

2) Aren’t their economic problems their fault?  Can’t they just work harder to get money and gain economic equality?

The discussion over the problems of economic inequality isn’t just hippie liberal rhetoric, it’s based in sound economic principles and  It’s F@#%ing Science! Right now, wealth inequality in America is more severe than some third world countries, but is even worse than that of ancient Rome. The main predictor of wealth is the wealth of your father,  real upward mobility is disappearing. In addition, economic inequality destroys our physical and mental health, and leads to increases in drug an alcohol abuse, crime, and other social problems. It’s easy to call the protesters lazy, but in truth, If they could work, they would. Their message is that they don’t have the meaningful work society once promised. And they are right, they have been losing their opportunities to succeed. And unless you were born rich, so have you, and the problem is getting worse.

3) Will it really work?

I think one of the driving forces behind this question is the fact that it is an active protest that hasn’t had instant results. There have been indications that the movement is having an effect. Public support is rallying behind the movement.  Amendments are being introduced to remove the corporate personhood that has stolen the voice of the American Citizen, both in the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as in individual cities. Opposition groups are even admitting their fears over the fact that the Occupation is working. In recognition of the power of the movement, Time has even listed the Occupiers as part of the archetypal Protester it named Person of the Year.

This style of protest is not new, and there is a historical precedence for its success. In 1932, WWI veterans marched on D.C. so they wouldn’t have to wait 20 years to get their wartime bonuses. They occupied an area of Washington, were forcibly removed, met with violence in a showdown against police and the army, but continued on. They eventually got their demands, but it took 3 years. The fight for civil rights in this country also used occupations (aka sit-ins), marches, and boycotts to make their point. Though we like to epitomize the movement through the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., the truth is this successful struggle took 13 years to complete. A couple of months is not a realistic gauge to judge the success of this movement.

This nation abolished slavery, fought for gender and racial equality, and is currently succeeding in its struggle for sexual equality. Each of those movements has had its naysayers, each one was told they were foolish, or even dangerous, for going against the social grain, and yet they have had their successes. This movement also has staying power. It’s been going on for three months, and that takes stamina.

The more frightening question is: “What happens if it fails?” As it stands the wealth gap is expanding, and the middle class is disappearing. The standard dream of owning and affording a house is disappearing. Jobs are being shipped over seas, and there is a push to hold the remaining jobs hostage with the demands of removing the worker protections and bargaining power so that the choice becomes: send the jobs to third world workers, or treat Americans like third world citizens.

4) Why don’t they lobby politicians to reach their goals?

Part of the reason this is necessary is that the lobbying system is broken. In 1886, comments made in the Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad have been interpreted as giving corporations personhood, including First Amendment rights. The 1976 Supreme Court Case Buckley V. Valeo, ruled that money equals free speech. Finally, the recent Supreme Court Case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, removed limitations on the use of money during election campaigns. As a result, instead of 1 person 1 vote, we have a situation of 1 dollar 1 vote, with corporate interests holding most of the money. The average citizen no longer has a say in the political process, and as the wealth gap increases, so does the inability of citizens to be heard. Asking us to play this game is like asking a person to play baseball in a league where only one of the teams is allowed to use steroids. Rather than try to fight in an unfair system, the movement is restoring fairness to the game.

5) Isn’t the movement just a bunch of drum circle playing hippies and anarchists who don’t want to get jobs?

As found in new polls and in my own visit, The movement is diverse and representative of the American population. The movement is comprised of health workers, union members, artists, military veterans, and other professionals. As for the 12% of the Occupiers who are unemployed, part of the message is that the unemployment is not voluntary. People want to work, it is a human need. But when corporations are outsourcing job after job overseas, the real jobs for skilled and  educated citizens are gone, and the unemployment is involuntary. In addition, even though the reported national unemployment rate is 9%, it has been argued that this does not reflect the true unemployment rate, and a more realistic rate may be 12% nationally, making the Occupiers representative of the American people.

6) Do Occupiers hate America?

To expand upon the thoughts of Paul K. Chappell, when you are a child, this nation is your parent, raising and protecting your. Once you have come of age and are a fully empowered citizen, this dynamic changes, and it is now your responsibility to become the parent, and the nation is under your care and guidance. A good and loving parent will correct a child when that child is misbehaving, but in doing so, that parent still loves the child. It is the irresponsible and negligent parent who allows the child to run around uncontrolled and hurting others. The Occupiers love this country, they just do so responsibly.

7) Aren’t the Occupiers wasting the money of working taxpayers because of the police overtime and other resources they are taking up?

First of all, as mentioned before, the unemployment rates of the Occupiers more or less matches that of the nation, so the majority of Occupiers are working taxpayers. On top of that, much of the police response to the Occupiers has been excessive and unnecessary, prompting official investigations, and UN claims of civil rights violations. Bloomberg has declared the NYPD to be his own private army, and his army has used such taxpayer money wasting tactics as surrounding a peaceful protest with riot police, and arresting journalists for covering police actions. The cities could choose to save money by having a more reasonable and cooperative response. Also, as a friend recently pointed out, every major social change in this country has had a financial cost, but the benefit of justice and freedom has always outweighed that cost. Finally, there is a saying that has been popular throughout this decade: “Freedom isn’t Free”

8. How can I help?

One of the biggest ways you can help is to just show up to one of the protest sites in New York, LA, Oakland, Portland, DC, etc. If you are on the fence, show up and ask open ended non-judgemental questions, or just have real conversations with some of the other protesters. One of the things I have found reading people’s accounts is that people who go in with their minds made up one way or another will only see what they want to see, but those who go with an open mind will have a fascinating experience.

If you are supportive, check out and participate in the general assemblies and work groups. These assemblies are open democracies. You get to have a vote in what happens. You may not get what you want, but you get a say, and that is the essence of democracy.As for work groups, if you have an interest or specialty, these groups allow you to use them for the cause.

If you can’t make it to a protest, as many can’t because of restrictions on available time and money, there are other ways to help. Educate yourself on the movement using alternative media (corporate media isn’t the best source of fair and balanced information on an anti-corporate movement), and act as a relay to help educate others. One of my favorite sources is the Ustream live broadcast, such as produced by Tim at The Other 99.

Help support the movement through donations. Information on what is needed and where to send it can be found here.

Find new and inventive ways to support the occupation. Occupy your own front lawn in solidarity. Adopt occupier symbolism in solidarity. Or make something up on your own (as long as it’s non-violent) as this movement is about change and innovation.

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What I learned in my year in the Mental Institution

About a month and a half ago, I finished my doctoral internship at a psychiatric hospital. It was a year of highs, and a year of lows. I saw great successes, and had my heart broken by failure and tragedy. What I saw at the hospital taught me very crucial lessons about the human condition, lessons that often go unseen and unlearned in our society:

1) We are all crazy, just some of us are better at it than others. Think about any person or group of people that annoys you. Think about all the reasons you think they are not attached to reality, not rational, self-contradictory or hypocritical, but still walking around. Now take that same critical eye and turn it in on yourself. We live in a world filled with logical fallacy, black/white dichotomous thinking, and detachment from reality. The main difference between the people inside the hospital, and those outside the hospital is how well they can function in society with what can often be described as symptoms of mental illness. Some struggle in society, while other thrive, turning these differences into unique strengths. Some lives are disrupted by difficulties, while other difficulties seem to hide in the background. How often do we ask what the difference is between the artist and the patient, or those who champion tragedy while others seem to fall apart? More often, we ignore the question, and isolate ourselves and others.

2) We need to listen more. We have a society that is built on the concept of speech, and this is not a bad thing. Our empowerment of every man’s right to speak helps us to ensure a conversation that can lead us to higher truths. The problem, however, is that speaking is only half the process. In our constant struggle to be heard, we have forgotten to listen, and so the conversation suffers, if it really happens at all. As a result, we have became a species of constant and meaningless chatter and shouting matches. As a result, our relationships fall apart, isolating people in pain and suffering until the damage is too far gone to repair.

One of the reasons we have failed so horribly when it comes to listening is that we’ve confused it with “hearing.” I watched it happen many times. “Fine, I’ll listen” is said, but decisions are already made. If there is a difference of opinion, or information contrary given, there was no attempt to resolve the conflict, merely a shouting out or silent dismissal. Many times there was no opportunity given for people to speak, and then their lack of speech was assumed as meaning they having nothing to say.  I did not just see this in how staff treated patients, though this is where I saw it the most. I saw it in how staff treated staff, admin treated staff, and how people treated each other in more social relationships.

Listening entails making the effort to understand what the person is trying or wanting to say, not merely allowing the vibrations to reach your eardrum. Listening is the antithesis of the shouting battle, it’s taking in what’s being said from the speaker’s perspective, and looking for what wants to be said. Listening involves eliciting a response and giving people permission to speak. Listening does not mean always agreeing, but it does mean acknowledging. What I often saw going wrong in this process is that people were so scared of what could be said, that they found subtle ways to take away people’s ability to talk. Fearful of what may be said or how they might be challenged by the words of the other, they denied the other the right to speech.

3) The more we label people, the less we understand them. We like to label things, because it makes them easier to understand. The problem is that people shouldn’t be treated as things. In psychology and psychiatry, we rely heavily on diagnosis. When used properly, it is a tool that allows us to understand what we may see in the presentation  of the patient, and what needs to be focused on in treatment. It is not always used that way, however, and instead the diagnosis is used to dismiss rather than understand. I’ve watched professional ignore real needs in a patient through creative diagnosis. I’ve seen people throw up jargon and ignore human understandings of situations.

We need categories to understand things in the world. These categories, however, need to be tailored to the individual. But we often cut out the latter part of the process. The more we use jargon, intellectualized terminology, and other pigeon-holing labels, the less we actually understand about the person before us. Instead, it separates us, building a shield of cold categories that isolates people from each other. Instead of understanding how the trauma of war, or the brutality of an accident or car wreck has caused doubts in the person’s world, we label them as anxious. Instead of engaging in the conversation of grief and loss, we label them as depressed. At the hospital, the diagnosis told me what to look for, but my success came when I pushed past the diagnosis and asked them about their world.

4) Our assumptions create self-fulfilling prophecies. I was often regarded as a naive and green student who wasted my time listening and paying attention to the individual patients. Usually it was because as patients, they were supposed to be crazy, disorganized, and generally unreliable. I also was frequently complimented on the progress of my patients and the information I could bring to the table.  It amazed me how people could not see the connection between the two. Even more confusing was how often signs of growth and healing were pathologized. It’s been 38 years since the famous Rosenhan experiment, and we are still showing we can’t distinguish health from pathology. Prosocial interactions became pathological cabals, attempts as self-soothing behaviors were demonized, and demands to be treated fairly and professionally were dismissed as psychotic agitation. Once given the label of insanity, everything a person does gets viewed according to that definition. But the problem is that because we pathologize health, we end up smothering the healing process and prolonging the illness.

Once again, this is not a problem exclusive to mental hospitals. We are often challenged in life to understand new information from unexpected sources. It’s how we learn, and how we grow. If we could predict where the next great lesson would come from, we would be seeking it out on our own. But sometimes that information, or even that source, is so alien that it not only challenges what we know, but how we see ourselves. At such a challenge, we have two choices: we can volunteer to change how we see ourselves and others, or we can ignore the source by denigrating it. Sadly, there are powerful forces towards the latter such as tendencies towards confirmation bias, and attribution. As a result, we end up hurting both ourselves and others, stifling our own growth, and tearing down others.

5) We don’t often think about how we hurt others. When you think about the history of mental institutions, you may have a hint of how horribly we’ve treated patients. Popular movies show very clean cruelties like padded rooms, isolation, water baths, restraints, electroconvulsive therapy and and the scars from lobotomies. The truth is a lot more disturbing. Think beatings, think surgical mutilation without anesthesia, ice pick lobotomies done through the eyes. The actual history is more disturbing than our fictions portray. The most frightening thing about this is that historically, we haven’t stopped the cruelty because we saw it as cruel, but because we found easier techniques. Lobotomies, for instance, didn’t end because someone pointed out the horror, but because major tranquilizers were discovered. It was only when we looked back did we admit our sins.

Ironically, this history of horror has made us complacent. Rather than learn from history, we seek vindication from it. When we look back on the sins of those before us, we seem to say “look at how much better we are than them,” and fail to ask “what are the cruelties am I committing today that the future generations will know?”

Ghandi, Truman, Churchill, and many other great leaders often spoke about how the test of a society lies in the it treatment of the weakest and most vulnerable. In my year working in the psychiatric hospital, I saw that connection. They are not only homes to house individuals with mental illness, but have also come to house the symptoms of the illnesses of society. In the end, I have come to wonder that if we had taken more time to treat and heal how we relate to one another, would we have fewer residents at the hospital? I wonder if that were we to spend more time listening to and truly relating better to each other as a whole, would more people find the strength to live with their illnesses, and would they find the support to recover quicker? And it is from these questions that I have gained my lessens from the mental  institution, and hope the world soon learns these lessons as well.

Looking back on the tone of this post, I also need to mention those who taught me to understand these lessons by both sitting with me in acknowledging the problems, and actively taking stands against them. I did not just find conflict at the hospital, but support, allies, and friends. The supervisors, interns,  therapists, and floor staff who helped me to see the issues from both sides may have been in the minority, but they were there. And maybe this needs to be the final lesson:

6) No matter how bad the world gets, there are always people willing to stop, listen, and work with you to find solutions. They may not always be easy to see, but they are there.

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