I first discovered C. Fred Alford’s work about the experiences of whistle blowers. In it, he describes what constitutes “knowledge as disaster”, and my experiences jibes almost perfectly with this list:
“What must the whistle-blower forsake in order to hear his own story?
* That the individual matters.
* That law and justice can be relied upon.
* That the purpose of law is to remove the caprice of powerful individuals.
* That ours is a government of laws, not men.
* That the individual will not be sacrificed for the sake of the group.
* That loyalty is not equivalent to the heard (sic) instinct.
* That one’s friends will remain loyal even if one’s colleagues do not.
* That the organization is not fundamentally immoral.
* That it makes sense to stand up and do the right thing. (Take this literally: that it “makes sense” means that it is a comprehensible activity.)
* That someone, somewhere who is in charge knows, cares, and will do the right thing.
* That the truth matters, and someone will want to know it.
* That if one is right and persistent, things will turn out all right in the end.
* That even if they do not, other people will know and understand.
* That the family is a haven in a heartless world. Spouses and children will not abandon you in your hour of need.
* That the individual can know the truth about all this and not become merely cynical, cynical unto death.
Not only is it hard to come to come to terms with these truths, but when one finally does, it seems one is left with nothing.”
Now plug in this list to Smart’s diagram below.
That, in a nutshell, is my experience. Ostracism is a cruel death sentence where all of the means to sustain oneself are intentionally withheld. The victim is used as an object of ridicule, contempt and alienation. The dying is slow, and there is full self awareness of what’s happening. Think of open heart surgery being performed without end, night and day without anesthesia, where the surgical team continually ignores the cries for help and instead makes jokes about the patient and his plight.
That is ostracism. Alford describes whistle-blowers who are doomed, but somehow, he never connects their experiences to ostracism. He discusses living as though one is already dead. Yup, that’s ostracism, because in the eyes of those who know and those who commit it, the victim as person has been murdered and only a ghost remains. But because the ghost has a heartbeat and is still enfleshed, it’s an object used for entertainment. In this case it’s used to create a feeling of superiority and legitimacy by degrading the victim as an unworthy, repulsive “other”.
I have been an other for time out of time. There is no re-entering society. I have been a most compliant patient patient and have repeatedly tried and failed to find a job, volunteer, make a friend beyond the most superficial of acquaintance level, and find any meaning or purpose in continuing to exist this way and there is none. In writing about some of my experience, I attracted a cyber stalker nurse and her band of bullying nurses, ambulance drivers and a Texas ER doc who wrote that “if she’s still alive we can make fun of her”. I was diagnosed as having persecutory delusions because my story “reads like a novel.” The outpatient psychiatrist to whom my case was assigned – she sure as hell didn’t volunteer – is married to the CEO of a competing organization in which I had been an inadvertent whistle-blower. In that organization, the mid level manager and director paranoia ran on high octane, and ironically, I wasn’t paranoid enough to save myself.
The paranoid whistle-blower is absolutely fight (sic) that his organization is not just out to fire him, but to obliterate him or her. The whistle-blower’s paranoia is an accurate emotional reading of an emotional reality: the one who has become the scapegoat cannot just be dismissed, but must be destroyed, so that others will know.
It is this aspect of paranoia that is the most difficult of all for an outsider to come to terms with because it represents a truth that is hard to know: that if the organization feels sufficiently threatened by the individual, it will remove him or her. Not just beyond the margins of the organization, but all the way to the margins of society. The average whistle-blower of my experience is a 55-year-old nuclear engineer working behind the counter at Radio Shack.
I was so desperate for help that I eventually sought it from the mental health non-system system, knowing full well that I would be placing myself in the hands of providers who were as likely to treat me with contempt as those who ostracized me did. All of my concerns were validated. For my troubles, I was diagnosed with stigmatizing labels, received treatment which resulted in metabolic, immune and cardiac derangements, was repeatedly deceived, humiliated, degraded and dehumanized, and was coerced and threatened. Physical problems were not diagnosed and treated, but instead were recorded as being somatizations and dismissed, if they were acknowledged at all. I cannot expect to receive competent healthcare from any provider who accesses my medical record because I am permanently and prominently labeled as the “xx year old homeless patient with extensive psych history”. When I pointed out multiple examples in the medical record of that to the outpatient psychiatrist, she sent a note to some of the offenders very politely requesting them not to do that anymore, and she proudly relayed that to me. But still it continued, and having been on the provider side, I know damn well that once patients are labeled, that they are treated with contempt, do not receive even minimally acceptable care, and they suffer for it with higher morbidity and mortality rates.
I took myself off every prescribed medication as none had helped, some were prescribed to mitigate the adverse effects of others, and many had caused direct harm. I read my medical record, identified what lab and diagnostic values were abnormal, and then I did all of the self care activities that I could do with my resources to reverse the damage.
But ostracism can’t be treated with medications and meditation. It requires a real physical friend, a network of professional/work peers, and a place in the social order. None of those are available to me.
Stillman, et al, describe life without meaning and purpose:
Why should social exclusion reduce the sense of life as meaningful? The pervasive reliance on social connection as humankind’s biological strategy entails that people are deeply motivated to connect with other people as a fundamental aspect of nearly all human striving. Meaning itself is acquired socially. Hence to be cut off from others is potentially to raise the threat of losing access to all socially mediated meanings, purposes, and values.
The formation and maintenance of positive close relationships can aptly be characterized as one of the primary motivations for human beings (Buss, 1990; Maslow, 1968). This pervasive drive has been described as the need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). We define social exclusion as a perceived deficit in belongingness.
Oh, belongingness. Joiner has something to say about that:
The theory posits that serious suicidal behavior will not occur unless an individual has both the desire to commit suicide and the ability to do so. Two factors contribute to an individual’s desire for suicide, a thwarted sense of belongingness and a sense of perceived burdensomeness on others, while the ability to commit suicide can be acquired over time through habituation to the physical and mental pain involved in self-injury.
I have been cut off from a place in society. The mental image I have is the astronaut in 2001 whose oxygen line has been snipped by HAL, the malign robot. At least the astronaut suffocates quickly in the absolute freezing void of space. His awareness of his predicament is full, but brief.
Not so the ostracized, who have to find their way in a hostile wilderness which is incompatible with life. I am out of place everywhere. There is no place to escape to. There is no respite.
In my everyday world, I go places to kill time. To use up the eternal isolation. To go just for the sake of movement. There is no reason for a journey. There is no destination. I try to keep everything out of focus, like looking sideways out a car window, because any conscious realization of my plight is too excruciating to bear, even for a moment. Time has no meaning. There are no holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, wedding, births, deaths, or special events by which to measure life. There is no quality of life. Everything adds up to zero. It is exhausting purposeless, meaningless, hamster wheel work, which is unending.
The psychiatrist conflated psychological assessment with treatment (not just her – I have found this with all mental health providers across disciplines), and I find this in the literature, as well. Assessment of depression, chronic severe insomnia and suicidal ideation is intrusive and painful, and yet, that is the extent of what she did at each visit. I had nothing else to share. My story was invalidated by diagnosing it as delusional. I will not refer to it again. It is not able to be heard by anyone. And I don’t want to cause anyone distress, which this obviously does.
It reminds me of times when people who knew what was happening to me would turn away when they saw me, lest they be seen with me and thus perceived as being at risk for ostracism themselves. There’s nothing like having people literally run from you to bring home how your life is destroyed.
She asked me what I was reading, but I’d reported to her my increasingly and consistently poor ability to comprehend, let alone, remember what I’ve read. I no longer read anything longer than a headline. Culling the literature for this blog post is taking me an extraordinarily long time. It probably reads as disjointed and not terribly well-reasoned. My cognitive ability and memory stink, to use the technical term. Yet, I can’t distinguish whether my nonstop efforts to keep everything out of focus, and so to minimize the consciousness of my predicament is the cause of my ever worsening cognition or just an effect of ongoing isolation.
Except for the visits to the psychiatrist, I have not had a single substantive conversation with another person for many years. And I wouldn’t really call the content of the visits conversation. In reality, I was always on tenterhooks trying to not evince distress, lest she decide to forcibly treat me.
I’ve lost the ability to have a social conversation. I can’t relate to others because I have no social commonalities – no family experiences, no contacts with people considered friends, no work role, no social role – nothing on which to any longer identify with others. When I was still trying to regain involvement via volunteering, as soon as someone got a whiff of my isolation via lack of those connections, they would abruptly cut off the conversation. I never heard from any of them again. The psychiatrist had been told this repeatedly when she poked and prodded into why I no longer sought outside activities. That amounted to self punishment. It’s painful to be rebuffed and excluded over and over and over. I am a slow learner, but I finally got the lesson: in order to avoid inflicting pain on myself, do not try to go where you are not welcome. That would be everywhere.
But she did it herself. She’s in a position in which, if she were to go out of role, granted, she could have provided me networking referrals to jobs.
But of course, she didn’t. Boundaries, you know. I was an assigned case, a cluster of pathological symptoms. Not a person, not someone with advanced education and related professional experience, not even a plain old person. She made two specific suggestions about how she saw me being able to contribute: to serve as a personal care attendant (adult baby sitter and butt wiper) or as a pet sitter. As if that wasn’t confirmation of my deemed worthlessness. Early on I had given her a copy of my vitae, and to her credit, she read what I had offered to her via a sample of my writing and the Alford article referenced here. And I don’t believe that she conducted therapy as a rule. I’m pretty sure I was an exception and guess that she primarily practiced psychopharmacology along with her administrative duties.
In my medical record, it turns out that her sole treatment goal for me was to keep me “in the realm of suicidal ideation. Dx: existential despair, but no worse than usual.” And that was the most positive thing written in my entire medical record. How is that compatible with life?
Stupid me. If I had gotten my records earlier, I could have saved myself the repeated distress of being “clinically assessed” (read psychologically debrided without anesthesia with wounds left gaping) and left to try to forget until the next session of torture and tell.
In my world, no one returns phone calls and emails. I received a total of 6 pieces of US mail last year (not addressed to “or resident”) – all from organizations requiring paperwork and none from individuals or anyone who knows me personally. I used to keep NPR on to hear reasonable, non-violent human voices. But I finally stopped because I often couldn’t follow the patter and it became just more intrusive and irritating noise. Now I just keep a fan running to drown out gunshot season – any loud abrupt noise especially during open window weather. I exist in a noisy world but with more silence than a monastery.
I can’t get any enjoyment out of any experience. Food tastes like nothing. Everything is a tone of grey and shadow. Aromas that in the past evoked pleasant memories are undetectable, and most aromas smell foul. Music is just notes, too loud and evoking nothing. People are nothing but harbingers of pain and dread. No one has voluntarily touched me except to perform medical procedures using my body as just an object, such as blood drawing and injecting a joint, in many years. I know better than to reach out a hand or to offer a pat on the shoulder. It would most decidedly not be welcomed.
There is no reason to prolong this, but my attempts at providing my own euthanasia failed. The LD50’s weren’t enough, and I don’t have the means to provide myself with a peaceful and painless death. I’ve come to realize that a painful death is preferable to this unending dying.
Ostracism means that there is no burden to anyone. Society has already unburdened itself of me.
Ostracism is a death sentence, and every person who knows that it’s been imposed on someone and yet who does not intervene, is a member of that judge and jury.
I can’t stand the notion that the rest of my natural lifespan is going to be spent in this wholly silent, totally isolated and destitute way of existing. It’s enforced insanity. The conditions explain why most whistle blowers get sick and die early.
Alford, C. Fred (2007). Whistle-blower narratives: the experience of choiceless choice Social Science, Volume 74 (1), 223-248
Smart Richman, L., & Leary, M. (2009). Reactions to discrimination, stigmatization, ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection: A multimotive model. Psychological Review, 116 (2), 365-383 DOI: 10.1037/a0015250
Stillman, T., Baumeister, R., Lambert, N., Crescioni, A., DeWall, C., & Fincham, F. (2009). Alone and without purpose: Life loses meaning following social exclusion Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (4), 686-694 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.03.007
Van Orden, K., Merrill, K., & Joiner Jr., T. (2005). Interpersonal-Psychological Precursors to Suicidal Behavior: A Theory of Attempted and Completed Suicide Current Psychiatry Reviews, 1 (2), 187-196 DOI: 10.2174/1573400054065541
Williams, Kipling D (2001). Ostracism: The Power of Silence 2001 Other: 1572306890