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Breaking the Chains that Bind
I woke up this morning wondering why I was feeling so dull. I am curious to know how many of you feel the same way. Yes, a circumstantial sort of depression, without a doubt. We all certainly have a lot to think and worry about. But this feeling of mine seems different than depression over worry about present conditions or worry of the future, this a deeper sort of despair.
I remember years ago when I was first starting my career as a therapist I had a client who had spent 17 years of his 34 in a federal penitentiary. He looked the role of a long-term convict—long beard, shaved head, and a body nearly entirely covered in tattoos. He was nice enough though; during the short time I worked with him I grew fond of his foundational loving spirit, and even though he had seen and participated in his share of violence (he was very active in the what they called the “Mexican Mafia” in Southern California) there was a strange innocence to his demeanour. One of his most insistent questions in therapy was whether I thought he had become “institutionalized.” I had never heard of the concept and quickly read up on it. I couldn’t answer his question, but it didn’t seem to me that he couldn’t do well “on the outside” if he put his mind to it. Surely anyone imprisoned that long was anxious, excited, and happy, to start a new life free of prison. Weren’t they?
He was back in prison within three months. He broke into his girlfriend’s apartment, took what he could, and stole her car.
What does it mean to be institutionalized? How easy is this state of being applied to a human being? Does it take 17 years in federal prison? Or can it be applied slowly, like the slow boil of our friend the frog in the pot? Was a tiny form of this “institutionalization” what I have been feeling nearly every morning for over a year now?
An Internet article on Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS) offers a definition of institutionalization:
Institutionalized Personality Traits are caused by living in an oppressive environment that demands passive compliance to the demands of authority figures, passive acceptance of severely restricted acts of daily living, the repression of personal lifestyle preferences, the elimination of critical thinking and individual decision making, and internalized acceptance of severe restrictions on the honest self-expression thoughts and feelings.
Wow. Sounds like another part of the conscious agenda going on now, doesn’t it? I remember reading recently that masks are used at the infamous military prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in order to humiliate prisoners. That seems like a rather overt conscious act—meant to cause direct and conscious humiliation. But does it also have a long-term effect after the masks are removed? Needless to say a prisoner in a prison being abused by authority will clearly fit the criteria above for PICS or Institutionalized Personality Disorder. But will just average people, receiving relatively subtle authoritarian abuse, suffer a similar fate but maybe in a less obvious way? Seems so.
So what does this mean? How does it show up? Well, I think we will be able to start identifying the effects of PICS as we see more “casual violence”—take for example the recent outburst that Will Smith demonstrated on the Academy Awards. Yes, it is easy to correlate such an event with what I am presenting here, but this display of violence on a nationally televised show is unheard of. Why did it happen now and never before? Climate change? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Violence may be an obvious way to measure a feeling of unrest and basic disorientation, but we may also see this in more subtle ways. As a psychotherapist I see a large cross section of society. It does seem that there are more and more people coming in with a general malaise due to the restrictions laid upon them over the past few years. But isn’t that just a normal response to being locked up periodically, wearing and seeing masks on everyone’s face, not being able to freely congregate? Yes, during these restrictions this is a viable reasoning for the malaise. But what about now? What about after many of the restrictions have been removed? Why do we, for the most part, still feel like we are in prison? Institutionalized?
My personal experience post incarceration has been even more subtle than my examples above. Since I have been allowed to go back into a restaurant (in Canada all unvaccinated were barred from restaurants, and just about anywhere else people gathered) I really have not had much desire to go. Eating out has always been a huge part of my life activity—pleasure, joy, mingling with other people, socializing, and of course, eating a great meal! There is very little, if anything, that was restricted and now allowed to me I really want to do. Why is that?
I’m sure many have heard the story of training elephants in India. The trainers put a chain on the elephant’s leg when it is a baby, only long enough to keep the elephant within a controlled distance. After the elephant grows to full size, it is still bound by the tiny chain it experienced as an infant. Even though he is free to break the chain as an adult, he never does. He doesn’t move beyond where the invisible restriction (easily breakable chain) keeps him. We are being trained to accept, and normalize, the restrictions that have been put upon us. We no longer want our freedom like we did before we lost it. We no longer instinctively look for social cues from a person’s smile and facial expression, we no longer look for a hug from a loved one, or a handshake from a stranger when we greet them. Even though we have been told we can take off our masks, many of us keep them on. Elephants with their chains removed, their freedom granted, are still prisoners. They have been institutionalized.
This is what this article is about—the after effects of our institutionalization. Post incarceration. And if anyone has been following my articles over the past few months, I believe soon enough we will all end up back in prison, just like my convict client did. Not because we did something stupid, but because we are unconsciously dependent on the authority ruling our lives.