The Buddy Bench

“Play makes us nimble — neurobiologically, mentally, behaviorally — capable of adapting to a rapidly evolving world.”
~Hara Estroff Marano: A Nation of Wimps
     I’ve heard discussions about something called the Buddy Bench. These are benches for children to sit on when they don’t have any friends to play with. Sitting on this bench is a cue for other children to invite this child to play. There are probably some nuances to the Buddy Bench I’m missing, but this is the basic principle. For more information, please check out the Buddy Bench website. The vision around the Buddy Bench is fantastic. Growing up, I experienced severe bullying and exclusion. Inclusion and friendship are great goals and we should be intentionally providing ways to encourage these behaviors in children. We should also be teaching them to adults! However, I believe the Buddy Bench potentially does more harm than good. Existentially, there are a few reasons this is a bad idea, and I’d like to recommend some alternatives.
     In A Nation of Wimps, Marano claims that parental over-involvement serves to undermine children’s confidence by weakening their psychological resiliency. Maranos’ research based book illustrates the risk of removing reciprocity from relationship (Buber). I will suggest why the Buddy Bench may inadvertently subvert the very ideals it seeks to encourage. Then, I will suggest a more difficult and authentic response to encourage children, and adults, to engage in healthy social relationship.

The Problem

    The primary issue I have with this idea is that it puts the onus of relationship almost entirely on the “other”. It does so through passive, rather than active/assertive communication. Sitting on the bench is making a statement without making a request. This is passive-aggressive communication 101. For example: if someone comes to your house, is sitting down to dinner with everyone, and made the statement, “It sure is hot in here…”, it may be a natural response to turn on a fan, open a window, turn down the AC, apologize for the unseasonably warm weather, or simply agree with them! However, the person making that statement has avoided vulnerability by making a request. Instead of asking if they could turn the AC cooler and risk being told, “No” (a rejection), they can use manipulative statements in an attempt to elicit a behavioral response from someone else.
     The more adept someone is at reading body language, subtle context clues, and implications, the better they will be at accidentally enabling others to continue using passive-aggressive speech. This prevents people from creating actual trust in others, because there’s no vulnerability. Without risking rejection, there can be no trust because no one has had the opportunity to let you down or hurt you!
     You may be saying, “Hey, Nathan! You don’t think sitting on a Buddy Bench is an act of vulnerability? You’re crazy!” Well, you may not be wrong about that last part, but here’s the issue: Sitting on a Buddy Bench automatically shifts the responsibility of connection from self, to others. It is a clear signal of needing support or relationship, but it is a request without risk. Even when the bench works, it doesn’t work, because the child will not know if they have a relationship with another child out of social obligation or due to their own personality, choices, and skills.

The Alternative

     Bullying is not acceptable. Bullying is meaningless, destructive, hurtful, and unhelpful. Anything I suggest from here on out should, in no way, be construed to imply that bullying is useful or healthy. And, just because a child is struggling with friendships/relationship, does not necessarily mean they are being bullied. It’s important to look at the context within which the isolation is occurring. If it’s primarily one or two children, then it’s likely bullying. If the child has almost no friends and is conflict with most other children, then it’s likely the child themselves is the issue.
     The response should not be to request the rest of the world to change to accommodate a lack of social skills/social understanding in one child. If this was the expectation, then it would stand to reason that we should all change in order to acquiesce to the requests of bullies! There are societal expectations and norms. They are not always fair, but they exist. Children are particularly skilled at punishing undesirable social behaviors. There are healthy ways for children (and adults) to learn to adjust their behavior to be more acceptable.
     I am not suggesting we should “go with the crowd”. There should be a sense of self that modulates all interpersonal and intrapersonal behavioral choices. But it is difficult to establish a sense of self by externalizing the locus of control in relationship creation. The better alternative would be to teach social skills in schools. Provide training to educators and administrators about how they can foster resilience in children. Resilience does not come without a certain amount of stress and discomfort. Having faith that our children are capable of learning new and better ways to interact and express themselves is a more difficult and time consuming route, but it is far healthier than a buddy bench.


Buddy Bench
Buddy Bench
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2016

Subtypes of Borderline Personality Disorder, Part I

“People with [Borderline Personality Disorder] are like people with third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.” 
― Marsha M. Linehan
     Let me begin by saying I am not an expert on Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). The information discussed throughout this post, like all my posts, should not be used to diagnose or treat patients. Instead, I would like to share how I’ve come to view BPD throughout my career and how my treatment changes based on that understanding. This, the first post of three, will describe a metaphor I use to help explain BPD to clients and families. The last two posts will describe the specific subtypes (I, II, and gestational) and explore existential treatment options.
     The DSM 5 outlines specific symptoms and diagnostic criteria for BPD. Information can be found here. A few theories on subtypes of BPD already exist. Millon has theorized 4 subtypes, and Lawson identified 4 types of borderline subtypes for mothers. All of these suggestions are useful in long-term treatment. However, I would like to suggest a new alternative to identifying subtypes of BPD from an existential and systemic standpoint.
     Lastly, I may not consistently use person first language throughout this post. This is not to say people with BPD are defined by their diagnoses. Rather; it is important to see this post as my clinical view on BPD rather than the people who suffer with it. 
Borderline Personality Disorder
     Often times, clients with BPD are unaware of their diagnosis or they aren’t sure what their diagnosis means. The DSM 5 describes symptoms in clinical terms which, to the one receiving the diagnosis, may mean very little. When providing treatment for clients with BPD, a primary goal is to help them understand the diagnosis. Therapists would do the same with depression, addiction, or any other diagnosis. As a way of clarifying some of the clinical jargon, a metaphor has often helped to illustrate the critical aspects of the disorder in an approachable way.
The Window Painter

     Imagine we are all born into a room. The architecture of the room has unique and distinct features setting itself apart from other rooms, and is mostly bare without any furniture, paint, window dressings, or decorations. As we mature, we begin to decorate our room as a reflection of who we believe we are. As others look out their perspective window into ours, and as long as the blinds are open, they will see aspects of how we’ve decorated our room. We move past other people’s windows, and sometimes other people, from within their rooms, move past our windows. Regardless of the external changes, we remain in our rooms.
     People with BPD, tend to spend an inordinate amount of time looking out their window without looking into their room. Eventually, they begin to see other rooms are decorated or designed, and they want to appear the same way. Then, instead of working on interior design, they begin to draw on the windows. The window drawing becomes so effortless that, over time, they can change the entire look of a room, nearly on demand. If, when looking into the surrounding rooms, a person with BPD sees primarily pinks, pastels, bows, and trophies, they will paint their windows to match! Then, if there are a new set of rooms appearing out their windows, the paint quickly disappears and a new set of illusions are constructed and painted to match.
     All the while, the inside of the room, the actual room, is nearly devoid of real substance. There are no chairs to relax on, no beds to provide rest, and few lights to illuminate the recesses of the room. After a time, the energy required to maintain a nearly constant vigilance, begins to consume the window painter. When this happens, they start making errors in dressing the window. Someone notices the mistake and asks a harmless question. The Window Painter panics! They turn to see their room and find it empty, save for dust and cobwebs. Consumed with dread and shame, they enable one of the few design pieces in the room: the blinds.
     With the blinds fully closed, the window painting is still very visible, but the Window Painter is hidden. These are not healthy moments of introspection and solitude. These times are when the Window Painter, looking at the back of the blinds, sees no one, no thing, with which to connect. They are utterly alone. Within that instant, thoughts of self-harm and suicide begin to spiral into perseverating patterns of self-destruction.
     This is often when those on the outside, in their own rooms, feel so disconnected and confused. Loving parents cannot understand the source of the destructive behaviors. Friends and social resources begin to be consumed with drama and crises. People begin to distance themselves from the Window Painter. Then, when they peek through the blinds, their worst fears are confirmed: everyone really was leaving!
    Enraged and unable to engage, the Window Painter scratches and claws at the illusion on the window. They throw the blinds open and show the world the cultivated emptiness of their room. This only happens for a few brief moments before the Window Painter sees into the room of another. The connection becomes a juncture, an opportunity, for the Window Painter to bare their emptiness to another. The alternative is to resume painting, pretending, pantomiming, and hoping others interpret their real needs without risking exposing the bare walls.

Diagnosis

     The primary criteria for diagnosing BPD is “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment” (Sperry, 2003. p.93). In the metaphor of the Window Painter, there is a dim awareness of the emptiness of the room. The compulsion to look outward, to the exclusion of personal insight, is fed by the overwhelming fear and dread which awaits those who look inward. This places the Window Painter in an existential dilemma: They want nothing more than to connect with others, to see and be seen. However, their greatest fear is abandonment. If the connections they experience are superficial and communication is primarily passive-aggressive manipulation, then very little rejection is risked. After all, how can someone truly reject someone they don’t really know?
     The sacrifice for this perceived safety is true intimacy. They are not fully known by anyone and therefore unable to truly connect. Behaviors emerging from fearful attachment (Agrawal, 2004) ultimately serve to confirm the greatest fear: Everyone leaves. This cycle repeats over and over again until the person struggling with BPD is truly alone. The mechanisms by which we come to know our selves (insight), our reactions (awareness), and others (empathy), all interact to help form relationships.

About the Doodle

      The Greek letter Phi is used to symbolize many things, including the “strength (or resistance) reduction factor in structural engineering, used to account for statistical [variability] in materials and construction methods” (Bulleit, 2008). While it should not be inferred that people with BPD have reduced strength, Phi is ideal to indicate a certain statistical variability in how BPD reacts to attachment and threats to attachment. In regards to the reactivity of those with BPD, there is a level of uncertainty which is almost always certain. Reactivity, self-harm, manipulation, low insight, and various other factors should be taken into consideration when entering into a personal or professional relationship with someone diagnosed with BPD.
     This is not to imply that people with BPD are too unstable to participate meaningfully in relationships. Rather, there is a greater degree of variability in mood, affect, and reactivity, all of which can add stress to any relationship. Therefore, to have successful, healthy, supportive, and strong relationships, we must take into account this variability and anticipate the need for additional supports. These may include therapy, hospitalizations, group therapy, medications, and education.



Phi
(c) Nathan D. Croy, 2016

   

Sources

     Agrawal, H. R., Gunderson, J., Holmes, B. M., & Lyons-Ruth, K. (2004). Attachment Studies with Borderline Patients: A Review. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 12(2), 94–104. http://doi.org/10.1080/10673220490447218

     Bulleit, W. M. (2008). Uncertainty in Structural Engineering. Pract. Period. Struct. Des. Constr. Practice Periodical on Structural Design and Construction, 13(1), 24-30. Retrieved from http://www.ce.berkeley.edu/~mahin/CE227web/UncertaintyInStructuralEngineering-Bulleit_Feb08_ASCEJofEP.pdf

     Kreger, R. (n.d.). The World of the Borderline Mother–And Her Children. Retrieved February 06, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stop-walking-eggshells/201109/the-world-the-borderline-mother-and-her-children

     Lavender, N. J. (n.d.). Do You Know the 4 Types of Borderline Personality Disorder? Retrieved February 06, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/impossible-please/201310/do-you-know-the-4-types-borderline-personality-disorder

     Sperry, L. (2003). Handbook of diagnosis and treatment of DSM-IV-TR personality disorders. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.

Child Abuse Awareness & Prevention

“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

~Kierkegaard 

         The following content may be uncomfortable for some. If you have young children, please read. Otherwise, go on about your business, there’s nothing to see here. This is about helping prevent and catch child abuse.

          At a place I use to work, there was a child who told a teacher her uncle wanted to play with her purse. Spotting a teachable moment, the educator encouraged the child to share and take turns. The child became sullen, said ok, and slowly walked away.
          Turns out, “purse” was a family colloquialism for vagina. Because the child didn’t have the right vocabulary, she was unable to communicate what was going on and received very conflicting messages from a very well meaning adult.
          April is child abuse awareness month. Most parents work very hard to keep their children safe. I’d like to provide three simple things you can do to help your kids advocate for themselves, maintain safety, and encourage healing if something were to happen. Most of these can be done at home, with your own children, and can help educate and empower them to protect and/or report abuse to themselves or others.
          First: be as comfortable with the words penis, vagina, and anus as you are with the words eyes, ears, and nose. Some people use bathing suit area” or “privates” to describe genitalia. While not wrong, they can lead to miscommunication and potentially teach children these areas are shameful or dirty. While this may not be an issue for young children, the message can become problematic when they’re older, curious about their bodies, and don’t feel comfortable enough to ask questions because “we don’t talk about that”. This leads to the second point.
         Second: avoid shame. It’s easy to accidentally shame children about sexuality when discussing abuse. It can be confusing to know the difference between “it’s not ok to have anyone touch you there” and “that part of your body is not an ok place”. This may sound trivial, yet it goes hand-in-hand with the first point. In addition, it begins to help children learn that what happens to us, does not define us. 
         Third: don’t abuse children. This one could go without saying, but let’s be honest! Children are most often abused by adults. All abusers aren’t malicious or evil. More often than not, they’re simply overwhelmed, under-equipped, and out done by the vast amount of energy children have. If you need help, ask. If you can help, offer. We want to help kids, so let’s start by helping their families.
         Lastly: when in doubt, call it out. Teachers, doctors, therapists, social workers, health-care providers, and child-care providers are mandated reporters. This means if we even suspect abuse in children or adults/the elderly, we have to report it to our state child care protection agency. There are state specific agencies, but there is a national hotline and website you can start with here in the United States.
          If you suspect, even without proof, a child is being abused, please call 1-800-4-ACHILD or visit ChildHelp online. Thank you.

Invisible
By Nathan D. Croy, ©2015

A Story for Everyone

“Recall how often in human history the saint and the rebel have been the same person.”
                                                      ~ Rollo May, 1975, The Courage to Create, p. 35

     Sitting in the circle, each of us took turns looking at the other wondering who would begin. The six of us knew each other, some more deeply than others, but there was still an unease. The prompt for the group was this: Tell your story. No one knew where to start. There were several revelations as we began talking about how we should talk about our stories.
     We realized that crises are relative. That just because the trauma doesn’t bother you now doesn’t mean it isn’t still important. There had always been people along the way, but we often failed to see them in the moment. And suddenly, I was thinking of Woody Allen.
      Allen brought a “quirky” and “neurotic” perspective to his films which people had not seen before. He told uncomfortable stories in a way that was just fantastic enough to allow people a safe mental distance. As I sat, thinking about how I would tell my own story, a seemingly insurmountable problem occurred: A story requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. Identifying those aspects required an outside perspective. The characters in the story never know how close they are to their own end. The cessation of one struggle could merely be the prelude to the next act. I do not know if I can ever tell “My Story” until it is over. And by then, I would not be able to speak.
     The distance Allen brought to his movies, the perspective, does not exist for us amidst our own existence as it occurs in the here-and-now. While others, through reflection and feedback, can offer glimpses into these perspectives, they are never complete. Which means the designation of “saint” or “rebel” must be put off until our story is over. In the meantime, we can reflect on our past, the history of others, the stories already told, and the parts of our story we have already seen unfold. But let us not be so bold as to imagine we can tell our complete story. Let us also not be so timid as to believe we cannot tell the parts of our story as they happen.
     I would leave you with this thought: Perspective is a requirement for wisdom and time is a requirement for perspective. As we allow our story to fulfill itself, do not miss the foreshadowing, the past struggles, and the joys which have already occurred. We do not know how close we are to the end of our own story, let us make haste in writing and sharing what we can.

Allen
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2014

Traps and Trauma

     The difference between children who have experienced trauma vs children who have not is the difference between a well-fed dog and a dog caught in a trap. Being bitten by a dog stuck in a trap will be interpreted differently than the same action by the well-fed dog. The pain and fear of the person bit may remain the same in each case, but the reason behind the bite is very different. The knowledge of this difference could lead us to quickly forgive the trapped animal while punishing the well-fed animal. Same behavior, same outcomes, different levels of acceptance.

     The reason it is more acceptable for the trapped dog to bite is because we expect it. We know they are acting out of fear and self-preservation. The rescuer may even fault themselves for not taking extra precautions when approaching a wounded animal. We do not fault the animal because we see the trauma. Some animals may need extra care and services before they are rehabilitated enough to join a family and be adopted. Some dogs that have been trapped are euthanized and deemed impossible to rehabilitate. Most often it could be possible, but the expense, time, and resources estimated to bring that change about are seen as too great in a cost-benefit analysis.

     Unfortunately, even dogs that are well-fed and well cared for can still bite and are often “put down” for reasons citing temperament. As if “temperament” were an unchangeable aspect of the animal existing in isolation from the environment. This is not including elderly dogs who may be suffering from dementia. While there may be some truth to this, most healthy dogs can relearn how to behave appropriately in a family/pack unit.

     So it is with children who have experienced trauma. The scars are not always as visible as they are with dogs. Children can arrive at school or daycare, interact with children every day, and be caught in an invisible trap they have brought with them from their home. It is not clear we should approach them with caution or additional supports. Good intentions are greeted with snarls and threats. Well-meaning people are driven away, confident their loving actions will not be “wasted” on an ungrateful child.

     All the while, the traumatized child and the trapped dog know two things: 1) Someone more powerful than myself has done this to me, and 2) only someone more powerful than myself can help save me. Therein lies the fear that drives the bite. These victims have learned they cannot trust those who are more powerful than they are, yet they know they are dependent on them for safety. It is a dichotomy of terror with no hope. Realizing this, the dog chews off his paw and risks bleeding to death. Coming to a similar realization, the child cuts off their emotions (reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, etc), their connection with reality (schizotypal personality disorder, schizophrenia, etc), both their emotions and reality (Bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, PTSD, etc), or their own self (borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, etc). Ultimately, they may even choose to end their own life as a means of escaping what they perceive to be a world full of traps and void of help.

     There have been instances where people like this have been “put down”. It happens under the guise of justice and death penalties. It happens through social isolation and institutionalization. It happens socially and economically and religiously. Through these processes, humanity is enacting the age-old rite of self-preservation on a social level. “We” are protecting “Us” from “Them” because “They” are threatening. It makes complete sense and, evolutionarily, protects us from threats. However, too often we are in a rush to protect, to diagnose, to define, and to dispense. The onslaught of managed care has taught us to ignore the traumatic traps and treat the paw, the specific injury, and discharge the patient in under seven sessions.

     In the process of being so quick to protect ourselves from the threat, we have become the very thing we thought we were protecting ourselves from: Isolated. Isolation is a social tool of punishment designed to either alter behavior so “they” becomes more like “us” (a part of our pack), or else relegate “they” to alienation and almost certain death. This ensures homogeneity and easy identification of who “we” are. The United States claim not to be savage, to be moral, to be respectable. Yet, if we are judged by how we treat our sick, our young, and our old, we are incredibly cruel, immoral, and lack any modicum of respect. If the sick could heal themselves, we would not need doctors. If the traumatized could free themselves, we would not need therapists. If the elderly were cared for by family, they would not need retirement homes.

     This is not strictly about government policies, universal healthcare, or insurance companies. This is about a society becoming so consumed with living a safe life they have failed to live a life. Convenience, ease of use, and customer satisfaction has replaced effort, attentiveness, and prudence. Somewhere along the line, acquisition of material goods and resources became synonymous with safety and wellness.

     So we abandon the dog that threatens us. We forget the child that scares us. We ignore the parent that cannot remember us. We waste our lives on things, and are surprised when things dominate our lives. To quote Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death:

     “What we call worldliness simply consists of such people who, if one may so express it, pawn themselves to the world… The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”

     And this is just what has happened. We have become worldly at the expense of our own selves, at the expense of those smaller, weaker, poorer, or sicker than ourselves. This has happened without a sound, with no notice, and it silently continues on, perpetuated by greed, fear, and the unending pursuit of safety. Let me assure you of one thing: a safe life is no life at all. There will be traps and traumas for all of us. Each of us will require the aid of another who is greater than ourselves to free us from these traps through relationship with patience founded on deep love. Just as each of us will encounter a trap, each of us will encounter another in their own trap. Will we risk being bitten?

(C) Nathan D. Croy
Trap