Intervention

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Opening Title

A&E’s Emmy-Award winning series Intervention routinely warns its viewers about the disturbing content of its program, and it’s good thing that they do so. For the show provides viewers with a disturbing look at the depths to which addicts descend when doing battle against the demons that haunt them, not only in terms of the harm they do to their bodies or even the kind of degradation that becomes their own, but the misery and loneliness in which they suffer their quiet torment. It’s not a pretty picture. But these viewer advisories serve as much to titillate the audience as much as to warn them, for it’s the "drama" of this hidden side of addiction that sustains the program’s popularity, precisely because it promises to provide us with a portrait of lives that have fallen completely out of control.

If the producers were truly committed to the principle of disclosure, they’d include another warning at the beginning of each episode, as well. For the method of intervention employed by this series is but one among many, one that’s come under increasingly attack, and for good reasons, too: for its reliance upon unabashed methods of coercion and the mounting evidence that it may be less effective than we are so often lead to believe. There is another reason even more compelling to suspect the portrait of addiction provided by this program, and that has to do with the unspoken assumptions that frame the very idea of intervention itself: the idea that addiction is the disease rather than seeing it as a symptom of something else. Something much more insidious, precisely because it goes back further than our eyes can see.

Advocates have long worked to overcome the historical stigmas that have come to be attached to addicts and their addictions, stigmas that have undermined efforts to help addicts too frequently condemned for the cravings and compulsions that lay well beyond their control. And coming to an understanding of addiction-as-a-disease was crucial in that fight, for only then could the public come to understand that the addict cannot and should not be blamed. For blame interferes with efforts to treat the addict and the addiction; to shame an addict only avoids dealing with – much less seeking to understand – the compulsion that lies at the root of their afflictions.

But it may well be time to give up this notion, for in clinging to the idea of disease, advocates are in danger of losing sight of the contexts within which addictions are born, the environments within which those compulsions come to be. Which is where A&E’s series comes into the picture. For it says nothing about the well-established fact that the majority of addicts suffered some sort of abuse while they were young, with some studies putting the figures as high as ninety per cent. If this had truly become part of our public consciousness, the interventions that form the climax of each episode would take on a very different flavor: less convinced about an addict’s "denial" or "refusal" to seek treatment, and more humbled by the ways in which a hidden torment comes to eat at one’s very soul.

The Limits of Understanding

How else can we explain cases that deviate from the norm, when the conventional rules of intervention are suspended because they are no longer seen to apply? This is exactly what we witness during the pre-intervention meeting for Brooke when her family is, quite amazingly, instructed to banish the word "addiction" from their vocabulary. Instructed by none other than the interventionist himself.

I don’t want to hear the word "addiction" today. I want that word out of this room. The people she loves most in the world are saying the most horrible things about her when she doesn’t know another way out. It’s not like she was out there at the clubs doing heroin. The behaviors are similar [to those of] an addict, so you put it in the same category as "she needs treatment!"

An unusual line was being drawn that day, one that distinguished between "normal" addicts (those who go clubbing, shooting-up heroin?) and Brooke who suffers from Still’s disease, a debilitating form of rheumatoid arthritis which delivers pain so severe that she can hardly walk. It’s this distinction that allows the interventionist to reprimand those who sit around him, chiding them for what they’ve been saying about their loved one and their daughter who’s become dependent upon her pain medication. And he’s brought in a pain specialist to marshal the authority of science to convince them of the imperative of seeing Brooke differently.

You really have to see some of this through her eyes. Fifteen percent of people like this take their own lives, and many others overdose. So she is, remember, she is really suffering. And she doesn’t want to live like that. So she doesn’t mind being loaded. Eight hours lying unconscious on the floor, to her that’s comfort. As bizarre as it looks, that’s the time when she’s comfortable. … So, you’re seeing the problem, which is real, but from her point of view, it’s really different.

When compared with many of the other interventions typically shown on this series, gone is the "tough love" that speaks in the language of choices and consequences, gone is the anger directed squarely at the addict, gone is the resentment and frustration about how their lives have been held hostage by the addict’s behavior. They are asked to see the world through her eyes, instead.

Fear and Shame

The following day, as we watch the ambush unfold – for the power of interventions are supposed to derive from their unexpectedness, designed precisely to undermine the addict’s autonomy – we are witness to a young woman quite literally trembling with fear, thinking she’s going to be locked away in a psychiatric facility. Only after she’s introduced to the "expert" do we actually hear her speak.

I’m really confused. You all haven’t understood for years and years. And now, all of a sudden, you have a change of heart?
[turning to the expert] What did you say?
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I told them the truth. What you’re going through. How much pain you’re in. How
it’s intolerable. And that everybody’s accusing you of something else. They’re all watching your behavior but none of them are living in your skin.

If Brooke’s story is an unusual case – an exception to the rule – it’s worth returning to the question of how the usual business of Intervention treats the addict, particularly when there is no "physiological" ailment that can be used to elicit the sympathy of the family. For in the absence of such a scientific explanation, the door is opened for the expression of a host of shaming behaviors, leaving addicts feeling even more humiliated than when they walked into the room.

This simple fact alone may account for much of the reluctance – and belligerence – evident during so many interventions, forced to listen to weepy and angry letters about how the addiction has impacted everybody’s lives. Forced to sit quietly and listen to the sadness of others, even as their own feelings remain unheard. In the face of such a barrage, it’s a testament to their courage that any decide to accept treatment. Because in doing so, they’ve been asked to carry a burden that no one should be asked to bear, precisely because the secret and shame behind their addiction is allowed to remain buried, an inheritance that none has the strength to face. No one except the addict, who’s forced to carry that shame alone.

Caught – and Stuck – in the Depths

If there’s any lesson to take from Brooke’s story, it’s this: the inability to recognize and respond to psychic pain represents a culture in the throes of death. If the kind of pain with which we are confronted cannot be reduced to a medical condition, one that can be explained by a faith in science, then it’s seen as nothing other than an incomprehensibility. And when faced with the mysterious and unknown, those who cannot understand recoil in misunderstanding and fear. It may as well not exist. As far as addicts are concerned, their pain becomes invisible to the world; and as a consequence, they become invisible too. It’s no wonder so many addicts choose to isolate, for that’s precisely how they already feel: abandoned and alone, robbed of any sense that they can be seen, much less believed and heard.

Pain

Such isolation and despair is plainly evident when the addict is allowed to speak, when he or she does is not required to defend against accusations that belittle and demean. Far too many wish they would die, praying to an unseen deity to take their lives, too weak and fearful to hasten death’s arrival on their own. For the suffering is overwhelming and the loneliness so deep that they know not what else to do. And so, at wit’s end, with no other alternatives on the horizon, they turn to their drug, seeking an escape from the kind of misery that has yet to acquire a name. And their families cannot understand.

Because they see it from the outside, it makes no sense. And far too often they presume that addicts do not understand the destructiveness of their own behavior. But addicts are not stupid, nor are they unaware. Most are quite cognizant of what they are doing to themselves. As such, any attempt to remind them of this only feels like a condemnation or, worse, being treated as a child. Sarah, for example, is infuriated each time her family asks about her addiction, for hidden beneath their concern is a certain helplessness she already shares, not quite knowing what to do about her conundrum.

Sarah: I’m not doing good. Everyone knows I’m not doing good. Why even ask!
That’s all everybody does. They come, they see me, they bitch at me, and they fucking leave. They don’t try to fucking help me. Do you see anyone trying to fucking help me? No!
Dad: We’re trying to see where you’re at.
Sarah: Everybody knows where I’m at. It’s plain to see where I’m at.
Dad: What do you want to do?
Sarah: How many times do I have to tell you! Dad, I know I’m fucked up and I need help. I want my family and son back. I just don’t know what to fucking do about it!!

Those trying to help think that drawing attention to the addict’s drug use will make them more conscious of their behavior, believing that reminders might instill a new respect for living. Little do they realize how their concern only comes across as judgment, precisely because it doesn’t tell the addict anything they don’t already know. As a result, all they can feel is shame, as is clearly the case with Jason who’s also caught in a spiral of helplessness, not knowing what else to do.

Don’t tell me I’m a piece of shit. Don’t tell me I’m gonna die.
I already know all this !
They rub it in my face …

Shame Rage

Why should they feel such shame? Why’s the addict so sensitive to the judgment of others? Precisely because he’s already judging himself and – more likely than not –the shame speaks in a voice both ancient and frightening. In the case of Dan, we can see the eerie switch as he quite literally moves from one position to another: at one moment, hanging his head in shame, as if weighed down by something too difficult to bear; the next moment, speaking into the camera in a barely controlled rage in a voice that’s clearly not his own, snarled through teeth clenched in anger.

Look at me … LOOK AT ME !!
I’ll kick your fucking ass, there.
You give me no other choice.

In watching the episode and learning about Dan’s story, we will have heard about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, how being the youngest in the family set him up as the target of an unremitting rage. And in those two postures, we can clearly see one of the most long-lasting effects of such treatment – a demonic transference – where both cause and effect inhabit a single body. The shame of what was done to him, the shame of what was yelled at him, the shame of what was beaten into him, the anger that originally belonged to another. Eternally stuck between the boy who knew too much about the violence suffered at another’s hands and the anger he was never allowed to express for being the helpless victim of a grown man’s rage.

Is it any surprise, then, that addicts do not want to talk about their self-destructive behaviors? That they will cringe from those who claim they’re trying to help? They know too well the voice of judgment. They live with it daily. In part, it’s precisely what so many addicts seek to escape.

Speaking in Tongues

More damaging than this is the conspiracy of silence that hides behind the voice of judgment. Many of the families documented in Intervention already know what had happened to the addict when he or she was a child, yet little effort was made to understand the connection between one experience and the other, how the violence of abuse propels so many addicts to their awful fate. Instead, that history has been submerged in silence, and survivors are encouraged to "let go" of their awful past (it happened twenty years ago, get over it!), as if an exercise of will were sufficient to exorcise their ghosts.

Little do they realize that this imperative to forget began almost immediately after the abuse began. For those who living in the shadow of a father’s anger, violence becomes the backdrop of a "normal" life, where entire families live in denial about what they have to endure, ever watchful out of fear they might trigger his rage. In the process, it’s the children who suffer the most, believing they’ve earned his wrath, the beating and shouting less a sign of his problem than a measure of their own worthlessness. And so, tip-toeing around that raging giant, the family presents a portrait of normalcy to the world and to themselves – "that’s just the way it is" – unless and until someone finally decides to speak up and put it to an end. Far too commonly, that rarely happens at all.

In cases where the abuse is sexual, the child is quite literally forced to live in two worlds: the routine of family life and the private hell that comes at the hands of the abuser, a split enforced by the threats that warn of the dire consequences should they dare to speak of the secret that haunts their miserable existence. Condemned to live in fear of upsetting an otherwise "tranquil" family, afraid of tell or, worse, if they speak, afraid they’ll not be believed at all. This awful fate, so painfully evident in many episodes of Intervention, is exactly what daughters and sons are forced to endure in silence: a muteness that has been forced upon them by their abuser or a parent who just doesn’t believe, as if a child would invent such a horrendous tale.

Signs waiting to be deciphered

When forced into silence, other signs come to take the place of speech. And this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the child is being asked to endure more than a young one should ever be expected to bear. Which is how sudden changes quickly become apparent, a coded message for others to see. For some, bodies become the canvas for their unspoken misery, an effort to make themselves undesirably fat or, alternatively, a sign of their disappearance from the land of the living, seemingly dissolving into thin air. For some, like Amy who asked her parents for help about her eating disorder, even this symptom is met with dismissal. Is it a surprise, then, that others would be hesitate to unveil the awful truth that hides behind it all, somehow recognizing the suspicion with which they’re already held?

When you’re barely eighty pounds at five foot seven,
you shouldn’t have to work so hard to convince your parents you need help.

The unspoken symptoms of abuse take many forms, but all give voice to the burden children are asked to carry and the silence they’ve been asked to endure. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the effect of violence finds expression through the changes of body, the use of drugs, or rebelliousness. Loved ones are silently asked to interpret these changes, to give meaning to what the child is unable to tell. But all too often, these changes are chalked up to genetics, personality, or just plain unruliness. Once the unexplained is dismissed in this way, even the most disturbing can be accommodated and, eventually resented. A sign of a child’s silent torment just waiting to be interpreted becomes the family’s headache, wishing their child could just find a way to be normal.

Such was the case with Nicole who, in the aftermath of her molestation, became dysphagic, something even her mother would deride with suspiciousness ("She can swallow but she chooses not to because she says she will choke"). So for fourteen years, Nicole lives with this symptom, acting out a message that the family refuses to hear: a "temporary" feeding tube leading directly into her stomach becomes a lifelong fixture because the very idea of swallowing induces a panic so deep, she’s left unable to eat.

Code or Delusion 1 Code or Delusion 2

In many cases, the conspiracy of silence produces symptoms the family takes as a sign of delusion. Such was the case with Linda, who developed mysterious pains and dislocations in her joints, particularly her hips. The pain so severe that she’s come to be dependent upon massive doses of fentanyl, a narcotic said to be a hundred times more potent than morphine. She found that a tiny ritual, one that might even look obscene to passers-by, helps reduce the pain she suffers, as if releasing the pressure that has accumulated for far too long. But because she’s no longer able to work and finds herself home-bound, a younger brother has tended to her for eight years, losing the better part of his young life in the process and coming to hate the sister he once loved. Yet, despite her increasing marginalization from the family, Linda insists they can help, particularly her father.

I was talking to my Dad and he said, "How can we help?"
Because I had said, "You have the potential to heal me.
You can fix my pain a lot. You can make my life so much better right now.
You know, if you would cooperate, you could actually fix me."

But the interventionist and the medical expert brought in to consult bear no such optimism, particularly since she also claims to be affected by electro-magnetic fields, even colors, that haunt her at every corner, energies bombarding her from all directions that require extra vigilance to maintain her own protection. And so, in the absence of a recognizable medical explanation that everyone can believe, Linda is quite literally tackled to the ground during her intervention and subjected to their collective rage. In their eyes, not only has she put them through hell, she’s been asking them to buy into ridiculous stories about phantom pains and persecuting fields of energy that emerge from nowhere. The end result? Institutionalization at a psychiatric care facility.

In each of these examples, but woefully evident with Linda, the addict is reduced to what family systems therapists describe as the identified patient, brought to the attention of doctors and specialists because, in the family’s eyes, he or she is the one with the problem. It’s the most perverse effect of the conspiracy of silence with which a child is forced to live. Such conspiracies, whether intentional or not, are a accomplishment of families that are rarely recognized as pathological, the result of covert collusion or massive denial. And because no one dares to break the spell, the one most deserving of care and understanding comes to be seen as the one requiring intervention and treatment, and if the help is not accepted, punishment instead.

A Crime Inscribed Upon the Soul

Another name that can be given to this conspiracy of silence is severe and chronic neglect. Children require that the truth of their existence be validated and heard. This is one of the crucial roles of a caring parent, one who can mirror back to the child the nature of his or her experience, for only in this way does the child come to recognize the reality of their inner feelings and learn how to calibrate them with the outside world. But when forced to live with a silence that denies the trauma that has given shape to their very being, their lives come to be split in two: the hell which has become their private torment and a the life of a family – and later, the world – in which they’re told it doesn’t exist.

This is why so many survivors of abuse struggle, precisely because they have been taught not to trust their own senses. Over time some begin to wonder whether the abuse ever happened at all; some may even completely forgotten. Wondering whether the images in their heads are dreams or snapshots of a suppressed reality, frightened by the frightening sensations that refuse to go away, perhaps even wondering whether they’re slowly going insane.

Some have argued that this dilemma captures the essence of non-genetic factors that contribute to the development of full-blown schizophrenia, the result of being stuck in a double-bind from which there is no escape. When the people dearest and most important to a child of violence fail to give credence to the trauma, they are basically asking that the child learn how to deny it. There are typically two ways to respond to such a double-bind: a flight into metaphor (the dream world), precisely because the child’s own experience has so forcefully been denied; or a fidelity to what is allowed to be spoken (stuck in a world of numbness), forever banished from the reality of their feelings. These are the two faces of alienation – from the world and from oneself – produced by the conspiracy of silence with which far too many are forced to live. Two sides of the netherworld to which they’ve been banished.

Stupor

But beneath these adaptations is a long-repressed memory, one that refuses to be squashed, felt in unexplainable panics or a diffuse anxiety that will not go away. And because of the conspiracy of silence, few will be able to make the connection between one thing and another, precisely because they’ve never learned to trust the truth of their senses or their ability to give sense to their world. In this way, the family-in-denial reinforces and sustains a coping strategy of dissociation, cut off from experience and themselves. It’s an automatic and unconscious strategy first learned at the hands of their abusers – in the face of a terror too great to behold -when the young come to be lifted away, only able to see what’s happening from a great distance or through a hazy fog. Families upholding a conspiracy of silence only serve to reinforce this form of self-alienation, turning a traumatic adaptation into a habitual mode of existence. One that comes to be inscribed upon the soul.

Is it any wonder, then, that addicts will describe their drug of choice in precisely the terms psychologists use to describe a dissociative state? That the "high" they seek mimics the strategy that helped them survive the horrors of the past? For echoes of their violation, aggravated by the very silence that seeks to repress their truth, will invariably return: flashes and attacks of panic, or vague and haunted feelings that something isn’t quite right, a deep depression, perhaps. Something that points to the fact that something is terribly wrong. So, when we listen to the words of addicts who’ve found escape in their addiction, it should come as no surprise to hear that they’re describing nothing other than a state of dissociation, numbed to the world.

Jessica: I loved the high. It took away … I guess, everything. It took away feeling. I didn’t have to think about anything. I guess I just found my new best friend and my worst enemy at the same time.
Gabe: It’s like you’re floating on a cloud. And you just sit there, and dream. You don’t get angry, you don’t get happy, you don’t get sad, you just kind of melt.
Sarah: [OxyContin’s] a pain killer. It’s like one of the ultimate pain killers, you know? You can’t feel hate, you can’t feel love, you can’t feel anything. It numbs you completely. Emotionally. Physically. It numbs everything.

Cutting 1 Cutting 2

The paradoxical – and, for many, baffling – practice of cutting is caught in the same spiral, caught between the imperative of silence and the need to escape. Already rendered mute, the cutting gives visible evidence of their suffering, even if it’s something no one else wishes to see. In this way, it becomes a mirror devised by their own hand, precisely because the pain was never recognized by another. And it’s in giving "voice" to their pain, that so many find release, no longer required to repress what torments them from the inside. So, in giving their pain an objective existence, we see once again the power of dissociation, numbed to the feelings, precisely because they’re too much to bear.

Amy: My cutting started when I was really upset and I was like, "Hey, wait, that should hurt but it doesn’t, and I kind of feel better." So, after that, then I started cutting.

Such are the symptoms of a crime that comes to be marked upon the soul, internal demons seeking release precisely because they’ve been forced to live in silence. Undecipherable to all except those already initiated in the darkest of secrets or, more rarely, those who’ve taken the time to learn their code. And in carrying this burden alone – in going along with the conspiracy of silence – not only do survivors take on the weight of what was done to them, they also carry the burden of their family’s inability to recognize, much less respond to, their pain.

In this way, addicts form the unlikeliest of Christly figures, unrecognized precisely because the compulsions and addictions provide a cipher of an unspoken existence and a hologram of their non/place within the family: the violation they’ve suffered in silence and the double-bind their family’s put them in. Bearing the sins of others, the abuser and their family which are sometimes one and the same. The cruelty of this arrangement becomes painfully clear when the survivor becomes the family scapegoat, when shameful silence gives way to its symptoms, when the addict comes to be the family enemy that is condemned for ruining everyone else’s life.

The Addict as Scapegoat and Speaker of Truth

Such is the effect of families that subsist upon the power of silence in which secrets are covered over in the interest of keeping the peace. Such is the pathology that asks the one in greatest need for protection to carry the burden of a family unable to care for its young. And so, as this form of displacement unfolds, the abused comes to be seen as the "problem child," unable to adapt to the demands of living, upsetting the family’s precarious existence. For ailments previous hidden emerge in the addiction, finally demanding attention in ways that cannot be ignored. Since the new symptoms are even further removed from their original cause – transformed by the imperative of silence – the addict is typically seen as constitutionally, even morally, weak. And with this perverse sleight of hand, we witness the emergence of the family scapegoat, the one who seems forever doomed to fail.

Each family has it’s own set of stories, a narrative that speaks of its origin and the path that’s brought them to the present. How the parents met, and how they came to start a family. Whether the pregnancy of the addict-to-be was planned or not, his or her birth is described as a "miracle," one of the highlights of the mother’s life. Other family events follow, as if tracing the haphazard line connecting unrelated events: a divorce, perhaps, another child, maybe a relocation to another city. And if the abuse has become public, it will be included in the story as well, but rarely will it be told from the point of view of the child. Instead, it belongs to a subplot of a child’s decline, a mystery and an irritant, one that slowly grows into a blemish on a family’s honor, with no one but the addict to blame.

Grandpa Asking It's Schizophrenia Almost

Once the addict is seen as sick – and not her family – there’s only one way an Intervention can end. For the terms have already been set, and it’s left to the addict to accept or reject their offer. When loved ones read letters pleading for the nightmare to end, what they mean is a return to what existed before. And therein lies the problem, because this "before" is exactly the horror the addict seeks to escape. Given this gulf of non-understanding, the ongoing terror of the addict remains a mystery, forming an unbridgeable divide between those who say they care and the one that suffers. Only when addicts are asked by a beloved will they let down their guards and try to explain, as Michelle does when grandpa asks whether she’s able to live without the drugs.

Sometimes I don’t think I can. Because now, even when I get sober, it sucks to see the shit because you’re not high no more. And it hurts. All that hurting you never did when you were high, you feel it when you get off of it. It’s schizophrenia, almost. It’s like, "Oh God, how am I gonna get the drug, I need the drug, I need this." And you can’t stop it! You’re whole life, every movement you make when you want it, is about the drug. There’s no label on a baggie of meth [saying] "Caution: Addictive. You will not have anything, even teeth. You will have nothing."
.
I want you to know, I don’t like this drug, either. I hate it. If it was a matter of
I-could-quit-because-I-love-you, I would have never started them. Out of everything I’ve lost, I hated not being able to call you.

She’s made an obvious effort to connect with the man so dear to her heart, despite having been cut out of his life. She’s the one who’s found the courage to unveil her misery, speaking of her struggles and her shame, even while he sits in judgment, trying his best to comprehend. So, it’s not with a little disappointment that she’s met with his continued disapproval. For despite the effort to move toward him, he remains unable to meet her halfway. Speaking to her as if she’s never even tried, unmoved by her story to change the terms of her banishment. Once again, unheard.

You get yourself straight, and we’ll be back [to] where we were.
— I need you !
Well, you’re going to make an effort now to get off them, right?
— [clearly disappointed] Oh, yeah.

Because she has no alternative, no "mirrors" to reflect her pain other than the eyes of her family, she inherits their definitions of her problem, coming to see herself as pathological and sick. In the process, she also comes to be enveloped by shame, precisely because no one has bothered to connect the dots for her, the relationship between her addiction and her molestation, first by a cousin and later, for three long years, by a "close family friend." The inheritance of the scapegoat becomes immediately apparent after Michelle’s failed encounter with her grandfather, turning to the bathroom, seeking another "fix" for her frustration instead.

Soliloquy 1 Soliloquy 2

What we see played out in front of the bathroom mirror is an internal dialogue, the spiral of shame within which she’s caught, abandoned to give meaning to a fate that exceeds her understanding. For whenever she tries to explain, she is met with the same face of incomprehension, seemingly indifferent to her plight. And the single escape available to her, the one thing which makes the pain go away, so cruelly becomes her family’s weapon, even when they’re no longer there.

How fucking disrespectful is that? I would never do that to my granddad. He’s all I ever had! But I wanted my bump. I don’t wanna let him down, and all he asks is not with him. He stuck up and he put faith in me. He put his love in me, the only motherfucker who ever has! And I go and turn to drugs? Fuck that. How can some-one fuck that up? And it hurts. So what do I do? More drugs. Because it’s all I ever know how to do. And I wanna stop so bad.
.
When that happens [when I stop], you’re gonna see my granddad and he’s going to say [with pride], "That’s my granddaughter!"

Because she adores him, because his love and approval are so important, she will enact his condemnation. She actually becomes the identified patient, reproducing his criticism even when he’s gone. Needing no other besides herself to reprimand the addict in herself for her "disrespectful" behavior. Ever convinced that she’s the fuck-up, unable to meet the expectations of the only family she’s ever known.

This is how scapegoats can be seen as both the strongest and most caring of a family such as hers. They carry their shame in private, even making it own, while the rest of the family remains upright in their condemnation. The burden is heavy and the addict carries it alone, the truth of her misery banished from her family’s consciousness. Stuck between a loyalty to the ones upon whom she depended for protection and a fidelity to herself. And in this battle for a child’s allegiance, it’s the family that always wins. For she rarely has anywhere else to turn.

Like in times more ancient, the scapegoat carries the burden of the community, where each bestows their sins upon the faultless one destined to banishment in the wilderness. In the past, it was an animal that served this function, a sacrifice designed to purge the community of its sin. In enlightened times such as our own, this function has been inherited by the family scapegoat – in this case, the addict – who carries the sins of her family, and their unresponsive silence, alone.

Why are you so angry You're not reliable

But however loving and strong, even scapegoats reach their limits. When pushed too far, they become speakers of truth, identifying the flaws and contradictions no one wants to see, unwilling to carry the burden that maintains the façade of the normal family. For there are times when their coded symptoms are not enough, enacting what no one else has been willing to admit, for the descent into madness carries a cost that’s too great, particularly when its message is never heard. And this is precisely what happens when, in the midst of a personal crisis, Michelle lashes out at her mother, tired of answering the same old question, "Why are you so angry with me?"

I know you love me, okay? I know you can’t help the way you feel. I know that.
— I want to protect you.
But you are not protecting my ass, are you!
— Do you need me to?
Are you [protecting me] ?
— Do you want me to?
You’re not reliable.
— How?
How ?? [incredulous]
— In the last three months …
How ?? [still in disbelief]
— In the last three months …
Three months don’t mean shit! I’m 18 years old. Three months don’t mean shit!
We’re talking about now. In the last three months, how have I not been reliable?
Right now, I’m eighteen years old. I’ve had 18 fucking years, and you’re not reliable.
You’re not thinking!
You know what? Fuck you. I’m not coming back. I’ve had enough of this shit!

It’s left to us to decipher the relationship between the accusation of unreliability and Michelle’s molestation at the hands of a cousin and a "close family friend." (A&E makes itself complicit in the kind of silence that has hounded her life, protecting the identity of her second abuser, much the nature of his relation to her family.) Interventionists would probably dismiss the accusations as a manipulation that only seeks to divert attention from the fact of her addiction. And yet, one can’t help notice that Michelle, despite her anger, is both willing and able to recognize her mother’s love. Also remarkable is her willingness to acknowledge her mother’s right to feelings that differ from her own.

What Michelle is unwilling to tolerate is her mother’s incomprehension. For in that stance of unknowing is the face of the silence that pretends that nothing happened, that the present has no relation to the past. But because the mother is still wracked with guilt – her own unspoken relation to the past – she insists that her reliability be measured in months rather than years. It’s also why she requires permission to protect her daughter, as if this were something a mother needed to hear. Yet, in doing so, she reinforces her child’s invisibility and the truth of what she continues to suffer. In maintaining her distance and defending against a guilt that remains unacknowledged, the mother once again puts another’s interest before her child’s.

The speaker of truth cannot fail to raise the hackles of those she condemns. It’s a never-ending battle that can find no end. Unless, of course, she submits to their version of events, their definition of her problem, in which case her understanding of herself – and her dignity – comes to be sacrificed one again.

On the Nature of  Recovery

PosterWhich brings us to back to the question with which this post began: what are we to make of a method of intervention, and a documentary series built around it, that assumes the addict’s problem is one of denial? That the way to express love and concern is by pointing to the impact of the addiction upon everybody’s lives? That the way to reach a drug-addled brain is by "raising bottom" by threatening the withdrawal of any affection or support that may still bind the addict to the ones they love? That all ties will be cut and all hearts closed until the addict finally sees the error of his ways?

Each of the images used to promote this show point to the semi-divine nature of such intervention, a helping hand extended to addicts who wallow blindly, stuck in their own version of hell. And while addicts certainly do suffer, the images – and the method – ignore the troubling question that lies at the root of their suffering. For in making the program about addiction and its denial, we are left in the dark about how things came to be that way. Deepening the voice-less solitude addicts so desperate seek to escape. But if we take seriously the proposition that a family’s conspiracy of silence is produced by systematic denial, it becomes even more difficult to think about the helping hand as a gift from above. For unless and until that silence is broken, it remains forever haunted by what has been repressed.

Which raises the question about the nature of recovery, itself, particularly if it remains tied to the intervention of one’s family: to re-cover (cover over) the origin of the addict’s unremitting sorrow and pain or to recuperate what the conspiracy of silence has so diligently sought to banish?

Creation of Adam

Michelangelo’s famous painting found upon the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – the Creation of Adam – provides a way to think about this question, and not merely because two hands also form the center of this picture. While commonly seen as depicting the Genesis story in which God creates Adam by breathing life into a lump of clay, recent reminders of Michelangelo’s anatomical training suggest there might be more to the portrait than we have been led to believe: the royal red surrounding the Almighty figure and those in attendance may, in fact, be intended to represent a womb, but also a transection of the human brain, itself.

If it is a womb, then the image might have less to do with the breath of life than a moment of separation, the green scarf a stand-in for an umbilical cord only recently severed. The hands reaching across the sky a measure of the moment’s ambiguity, perhaps even grasping for what has been lost. Having been pushed from the womb, Adam is no longer in possession of the comfort it can provide; those that look to him from a distance also find themselves absent his company. In some ways, this is no different from the situation of the addict, reaching for the kind of recognition and understanding that seems maddeningly beyond one’s grasp.

And perhaps this is how a womb doubling as a brain might be relevant, pointing to the only way in which such a stalemate can be brought to an end: only by coming to an awareness of the nature of that struggle can one sever the source of torment. As long as Adam clings to what has been lost, he’ll forever feel deficient, left alone in a world without the means to make life an affirmation.

Creation of Adam close-up of womb

A closer look at the "womb" may make the task easier, for once we train our eyes on the family contained within, it begins to take on a very different face: not only is it crowded, its inhabitants don’t look any the more happy for it. The figures that we might assume to be attending angels look more like children, each taking a position around the bearded Father. Some even appear to be crushed by his weight, and the woman some see as Eve also seems ambivalent about her relation to the Almighty by her side. Were it not for the strength of his embrace, she might even attempt to flee.

In other words, this is not an idyllic portrait, whether that be one’s family or a world of perfection that exists in the heavens alone. In either case, it’s what appears to have given birth to Adam, as well as his separation, condemned to live a life apart. Stuck with the image of a Deity reigning supreme over His family in a womb that doubles as a brain.

But lest we forget, this famous painting is but one of nine portraits from Genesis that graces that famous ceiling, each clustered into a group of three: Noah and the Great Flood, Adam and Eve in the Garden, and the Creation Story with which the Book of Genesis begins. As one enters the chapel and heads toward the altar, these portraits are arranged in reverse chronological order, as if there was a specific story Michelangelo wished to tell, one not reducible to the sequence of events as narrated in the Bible, alone. The nine panels seem to recapitulate the theme already evident here: the passage from womb to brain, an earthly birth that’s transcended into something else.

1 Noah's Drunken Nakedness 3 Noah's Sacrifice

The first panel depicts a Drunken Noah and the last panel depicts the Separation of Darkness from Light, and it’s the passage from the one to the other that is traced as one walks towards the altar, as if this act of walking were itself a pilgrimage reenacting a transformation from drunkenness into light.

The group of portraits belonging to Noah’s story all revolve around the patriarch and his family. In the first scene, one of his son’s (Shem) points to his father’s drunken nakedness; Shem’s brothers cover over the father’s body, out of fidelity and shame, heads averted from what they dare not see. In the second scene we see the Great Deluge, the foreground filled with suffering while Noah and his family lock themselves away in the ark that sits upon the horizon. In the third, we see the chaotic scene of a family sacrifice: Shem kneels in the foreground, overshadowed by his brothers who have been charged with the task of killing; the patriarch, with his hand raised in the air, watches over and directs this scene of sacrifice, his wife standing dutifully by his side.

Had Michelangelo retained the original sequence of events as found in Genesis, the panels would have been arranged differently: the Flood, thankful Sacrifice, followed by Noah’s drunkenness. But in changing their order, it’s another story that seems to be told, as if Shem’s identification of his father’s nakedness gave way to the Flood and subsequent sacrifice, as if Shem himself was being punished for his crime, as if he had drawn attention to a forbidden truth looking upon his drunken father. For in the sacrificial scene, Shem is the only one to remain entirely unclothed, his family portrayed in various stages of having covered over their nakedness.

4 Expulsion from Eden

If such sacrifice results in banishment, as is so often the case with addicts, many will turn to the arms of a lover for consolation, seeking what has been denied for far too long: a sympathetic ear, affection and understanding. But all too often, the one they find shares in their unspoken fate, seeking exactly what the other hopes to find, each damaged from conspiracies of silence that can only leave their victims dumbfounded in their wake. So, while they might at first believe they’ve discovered their very own Garden of Eden, what they find is a terrible Knowledge instead. That what they find is not the salve for which they were looking, nor the delight they thought they might have found.

Many seek qualities in their mate that compensate for their upbringing, perhaps a strong arm to protect them or someone who understands. But each has their own shortcomings, particularly those still caught in the fog of their unspoken fate, still caught in the shadow of what was done and what was denied. Quite cruelly, lovers able to protect will fail to understand, and those who understand far too frequently lack the means for release. And so, what began as a joyful celebration ends with another banishment, one that feeds the desire to escape with even greater force.

5 Creation of Eve 6 Creation of Adam

But if they’re lucky, something else might happen, something that Michelangelo places in the exact center of this church, a pivot around which a different story might emerge. For in the Creation of Eve we witness the figure of Adam lying inert against a barren tree, not so different from the pose of the Drunken Noah we had seen before. But rather having that nakedness covered over and denied we are witness to the emergence of Life, a "companion" that had not existed before.

Lest we think of this couple – and their names – merely as personages or stand-ins for male and female, it’s worth remembering the qualities associated with their names. That Adam is the term for a generic human and corporal being, "a passive
subject of providential and creative action," one who had no control over the conditions that gave rise to their existence. Eve, as the symbol of Life, is the miracle that allows "Adam" to overcome this fate, a spark that animates and gives way to growth, precisely the kind of transformations that’s eluded the passively created for far too long.

Which is how "God" finally enters the picture, a powerful figure in the heavens now embracing the recently awakened Eve. In this way, the portrait known as the Creation of Adam could just as well be described as the Creation of God. For all that has preceded this moment has existed in the deity’s absence, as if the Almighty had yet to be born.

7 Separating the Waters 8 Creating the Sun Moon and Earth

And while this might sound like blasphemy, how else are we to make sense of the disappearance of Adam and Eve in all that follows? And how else are we to interpret what can only look like God’s nativity, traveling through a birth canal, emerging into another dimensions of existence, no longer encased in a womb or brain? For in the following portrait, the first in the next set of three, we see the Divinity engaged in the task of Separating the Waters, head bowed and eyes unseeing, as if still a newborn child. And by virtue of separating water from water, discerning which belongs to which, that land finally appears, a place to set one’s foot upon and finally find one’s ground.

Which, in turn, gives way to the creation of the Sun and Moon (or is this an act of separation too?), arms outstretched as if relegating each orb to its place in the sky. With each act, this Almighty figure seems to grow younger, as if each achievement were a step toward the Fountain of Youth. For discerning one light from the other carries as much weight as the separation the waters, each possessing a logic and rhythm of its own, each serving a purpose the other cannot fulfill.

9 Separation of Light from Darkness

And finally, we reach the culmination of this journey, what would seem to be the point of it all. All that precedes it is a precondition for its fulfillment: The Separation of Light and Darkness. No longer surrounded by attending angels, no longer encased by a womb, no longer yearning for what has been lost or haunted by what has been forgotten. Quite notably, too, this God has grown a pair of breasts, which might explain the disappearance of Adam and Eve. Careful eyes will have already noticed Michelangelo’s proclivity for drawing androgynous figures, blurring the line between the sexes, wedded as he is to the belief in a wholeness that transcends the two.

It’s as if Michelangelo’s making the case that this final set of panels depicts the basis for this transformation, the integration of opposites that need not stand alone. And for addicts who have crumbled under conspiracies of silence, this is crucial: transcending the violence that gave birth to their torment, overcoming the shortcomings of an inheritance unable to defend its young. For one reduced to helplessness, learning to recognize the power within; for one consumed by rage, recognizing the ability to heal. Discovering the missing element within oneself. Laboring tirelessly until it’s finally become one’s own. Learning to name one’s experience: separating darkness from light.

Some have suggested that there are hidden anatomical figures in this portrait too, that hidden in the robe’s wrinkles is a spinal column reaching toward the sky, that beneath this are the very structures that enable our sense of sight. In a way, each underscores the upward thrust at the core of this achievement, and the discernment that makes it so. No longer the passive subject, no longer the object for another’s pleasure. No longer stuck in yesterday’s sensations, no longer living in a haze. No longer the family scapegoat, nor the receptacle for another’s rage. No longer in need of completion, no longer feeling denied.

For the passage of generations in which incapacity and violence is passed from adult to child is a never-ending cycle, an endless spiral of anger and shame. It’s nothing other than an exercise in madness.

And someone has to make it stop.

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~ by mistified on 14 January 2011.

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