Wellness vs. Wholeness: Breaking Out of the Mental Illness Paradigm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the terms that we use to describe our various states of mental health, and some brain vomit got into the computer. 😉 Have fun with this one!

“Mental Illness” has both lost and gained popularity in the last few years. Those who like it do so because they want to legitimize mental health challenges as real challenges people face just like any other health problems. I understand their motivations, but I tend to be on the side of hating the term. It feels clinical, sterile, othering, and disempowering when I think about applying the label to myself. It makes me feel like I need to be fixed, which is not something I believe, despite my strong identification with my PTSD (and let’s face it, I probably have an anxiety diagnosis as well…or could if I don’t). I might be wounded, but I’m not someone’s lab project.

The other popular phrase I’ve encountered in the peer movement is “mental wellness.” On the surface it sounds better. It attempts to emphasize strength over weakness and de-stigmatize mental health. For some reason, though, it still leaves me with the an emotional gag reflex (ooh, remember this post?). I want to smack anyone who asks me what my wellness plan is.

Perhaps by itself, mental wellness wouldn’t irritate me so much if it weren’t for the language surrounding the wellness idea. Questions like, “what do I look like and act like when I’m well?”

I know the answer they’re looking for is “cheerful, happy, good, upbeat, calm, peaceful” and other such saccharine words, but I don’t think that’s wellness. My mental wellness plan doesn’t involve trying to maintain happy or taking emergency action because I feel sad.

Ultimately, though, I think my aversion to “mental wellness” comes from the fact that it’s still working within the dichotomy of wellness/illness. It’s a paradigm within which I don’t even want to operate for my mental health because it sets up certain experiences as inherently “unwell.”

I prefer to think of my mental state as being somewhere on the spectrum of wholeness or fragmentation.

When I’m fragmented, I’m not connected or engaged with parts of myself. I’m suppressing emotions, thoughts, memories, desires, maybe even experiences. I disconnect from my psyche, either entirely ignoring valid emotions or becoming stuck in them. Fragmentation interrupts my daily functioning and interferes with my relationships.

Maybe that sounds like what most people think of as “illness” or “unwellness,” yet I have found that fragmentation can involve happiness. If I’m stuck in happiness, refusing to move through my process by maniacally inducing a feeling of “good,” then my happiness is as detrimental to my wellbeing and wholeness as depression or anger can be.

On the flip side, when I’m moving towards wholeness, I’m integrating all of the parts of myself and actively engaging in my process. Sometimes that means that I’ll be joyous and upbeat. Sometimes it means I’ll be balling my eyes out or screaming into a pillow. The difference isn’t what I’m feeling in that moment. The difference is in whether I’m engaging informatively.

No emotion is inherently unhealthy, negative, dangerous, or bad. All of them have a place in being a whole person. The only thing that can be unhealthy, negative, dangerous, or bad are the scripts we apply to our emotions…and one of those scripts, I’m starting to think, might be the script of mental wellness.

If I am moving in my process, no matter what emotion I’m experiencing, I can be well if I am connected to myself. Healing isn’t about moving towards good feelings. It’s not always about “getting better” or “recovering.”  It’s about moving towards integration of all our aspects.

 

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Working All Things Together For Good: Walking the Line Between Acceptance and Learned Helplessness

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

I grew up hearing Romans 8:28 used to justify everything from cancer to violence and abuse. Within the IFB, it was one of many verses that “proved” that God brought certain things into a person’s life on purpose—even harmful things—and that we should endure suffering for the sake of “spiritual growth.”

It was a theme I also found rearing its head when I explored Buddhism—the concept that suffering is to be endured, therefore we should accept it rather than fight it.

It’s a harsh fact of life that no one has complete control over anything. Catastrophe can strike and upend decades of hard work. A death can send loved ones into a downward spiral. Choices have unforeseen consequences. And people sometimes just take a different path than intended.

In the words of a cynical Simba in The Lion King, “Sometimes bad things happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Some could say that spirituality is all about learning how to cope when shit happens. But where do you draw the line between acceptance and learned helplessness? Between comfort and coercion?

I categorically reject the idea that an omnipotent being can predestine evil and also be loving and good. That particular Christian theology is not only oxymoronic but also toxic and abusive. It turns God into a psychopath, doling out pain to manipulate his children into further obedience or submission.

However, I don’t reject the idea that evil can be part of a person’s path and that good can come of it, but the good that comes from evil is not a result of evil.

It’s a subtle but important distinction to make.

When evil is portrayed as the impetus for good, it necessitates that evil be good.

On some level, one can argue that the good or bad of a situation is largely determined by perspective, e.g. the person who thanks the universe that they missed a bus that later crashed.

However, a fatalism like that quickly becomes problematic when taken to an extreme, such as when an incest survivor is told that it’s “good” that her father raped her as a child because it made her strong or when a grieving mother is told that it’s good that her baby died because he might have been a serial killer.  It’s more than just a heartless worldview. When horrible events or harmful circumstances are dismissed by trying to reframe them as good because good may or has come from them, it makes those events requisite in a person’s life.

If evil is essential in order for a person to grow into who they should be, that means fighting evil is the same as fighting one’s own betterment. In the end, the “everything happens for a reason” mentality virtually requires that people passively accept mistreatment and abuse. It’s a form of learned helplessness that preys not only on the idea that you can’t do anything to change your circumstances but also that you shouldn’t want to.

Spirituality should give people something to hold onto during those tough times to help them get through, but disempowerment shouldn’t be the result.

Most mainstream religions, especially the patriarchal ones, have adopted this fatalistic approach to evil, giving people phrases with which to comfort themselves even as they stifle their own hope. Few want to believe that our lives are entirely at the mercy of chaos, yet they embrace a philosophy that is as powerless as chaos itself. Evil at the direction of a sadistic deity is hardly better than evil for no reason whatsoever.

Is there an alternative? Something in the middle that allows people to take comfort in a spiritual philosophy that promises the development of good from bad without making the bad good?

I believe so.

The verse I referenced at the beginning of this post has most often been credited to God’s power. Good comes because God brings it through evil. However, the actual language in the verse never mentions the source of the good. It just says that all things work together for good.

But if God isn’t the source of the good—if God hasn’t brought evil into someone’s life for the purpose of growing good—where can good come from?

From within the individual.

Bad things do happen. Uncontrollable things happen. Life is constantly changing, and with that change comes the possibility for catastrophe.

And therein lies the opportunity.

The reason that it’s possible for good to come from evil isn’t because the evil was necessary or predestined; rather, it’s because we, as humans, have the tremendous power of being able to engage with life and respond to our circumstances. We can’t control everything, but we don’t need to. We have the power to transform everything. Pain, loss, abuse, destruction—they’re fucked up building materials, but we are wired to create.

Spirituality can’t promise people an easy life. It can’t promise that good will happen. (And if it does it’s a lie!) But it can offer the hope that something can be made from whatever happens in life. Not all change is good, but all change is an opportunity to create good.

It’s Easter weekend, and everyone around me is seemingly celebrating resurrection. I am too, but I’m not celebrating the resurrection of a god. I’m celebrating the resurrection of the human spirit.

 

Cult Spotting 101: Breaking Down Multi-Level Marketing Schemes (Guest Post)

Today’s cult spotting is a guest post. My partner did a breakdown of Multi-Level Marketing Schemes after being invited to join several in the last couple of years. Since MLM’s have scammed several people we know and love, I thought it would be good to post his assessment of the mathematical improbability of success and the manipulative ways that most MLM’s suck people into their schemes.

A friend recently asked me to visit his home to talk about an exciting business prospect. He wouldn’t tell me much about the company, except to say it was an incredible opportunity to augment my income, and he wanted me to watch a promotional video. I am suspicious by nature, having grown up in a cult, so I researched the company before confirming my interest. If you’re like me, you want to believe your friends and family when they rave about something that changed their life. But as I read about multi-level marketing (MLM) businesses like this one, I slowly realized that many of these companies seek out this trust to exploit it.

RECRUITMENT

The basic structure of a multi-level marketing plan is that you recruit other people to sell the product for you, thereby gaining profit from their sales. The problem comes when the MLM structure reaches its seventh or eighth level. Let’s say you are the founder of an MLM. You recruit 10 people to sell the product for you, and you promise your sellers 20% of the profit from the product they sell. Those 10 people each recruits 10 people, who each recruits 10 people. By the fourth level, there are 10,000 sellers, which is more than the population of the capitol city of Vermont.

By the sixth level, there are 1,000,000 sellers, which is more than Vermont’s entire population. And by the eighth level, there are 100,000,000 sellers, which is a third of people in the United States and approximately a fifth of the entire North American continent including Canada and Mexico. This exponential growth cannot sustain itself because, if (after the fourth level) the entire population of a small city is selling the product, there is hardly any market left to buy the product. Its ever-expanding nature makes its eventual collapse almost inevitable.

FINANCIAL MANIPULATION

This financial instability requires a different form of income in order to remain profitable. MLMs claim to focus on their products, but the main draw of the MLM structure is the Customer Acquisition Bonus (each MLM has a different name for this), whose name is misleading. You are not acquiring customers—you are recruiting sellers. The irony, however, lies with the fact that most MLMs require new recruits to purchase their own training, training materials (videos, books etc), subscriptions to the corporate service, other yearly or monthly fees, and start-up capital, often totaling hundreds of dollars. Most sellers never recoup their start-up money. In the end, buying into the scheme was the real product all along.

This is a huge red flag for me, because real businesses that are making profit from selling the actual product itself would pay for the training of their employees and often pay for their training materials. These real businesses operate within the basic supply-and-demand structure of our capitalist economy. Such MLMs, which cannot produce profit after a certain expansion point, must rely on other methods of obtaining profit—namely, selling the idea of making large amounts of money on minimal work and by profiting from others’ work.

Ultimately, this second form of income also fails mathematically. Let’s use the 20% example from above. If you are promised 20% of your recruits’ sales, when those recruits recruit more sellers, 40% of the profit has been paid out as a bonus. Upon the fifth level, there is no more profit to be paid out. Corporate doesn’t get any money; you stop getting commission; and the entire business stops working. This, of course, would be true only if our example MLM were operating like a normal business based on the profits of their product.

Instead, most of the money that enters the business comes from its recruits and their unsuspecting, trusting families and friends. This incestuous business model most frequently sucks a seller dry of contacts and resources long before the seller makes any profit.

THE LIE OF GET-RICH-QUICK

As noted above, the draw for getting people to buy into MLM’s is the promise of reaping large profits. If the business model itself isn’t obvious enough in the flaws, a quick verification check of the Income Disclosure statements can reveal how exaggerated claims of MLM’s tend to be. Check out SendOutCards’ Income Disclosure statement from 2012.

92.26% of their employees are Senior Distributors who average a gross annual income of $35.56, which probably doesn’t cover the materials and training costs. Managers make up 3.86% and average $404.11 annually, while Senior Managers make up 2.36% and average $2,483.31 annually. This means that a total of 98.48% of SendOutCards’ employees averaged less than $3,000 annually.

Advocare, whose 2013 income disclosure statement states that 91.35% of their employees averaged less than $2,500 annually, and 96.87% averaged less than $1,300 annually.

Beach Body’s 2011 income disclosure statement shows that 67.4% of their employees were retail sellers only selling the product and not participating in the MLM portion of their company – these sellers made an average of $360 per year. Another 25.7% of employees also participated in recruitment, collecting such bonuses, but even these employees only averaged $2,319 per year. Yet another 4.5% averaged less than $14,659 per year, meaning that of all Beach Body’s employees, 97.6% of them averaged less than $14,659 per year leaving roughly 2.4% of average profitability.

SequenceInc, a forensic accounting website, reports that in 2009, employees of Avon made the following:

• 36.1% earn 0 – $4,999

• 15.8% earn $5,000 – $6,999

• 26% earn $7,000 – $11,999,

• 17.6% earn $12,000 – $29,000

• 4.4% earn $30,000 and above. 

If a physical, bricks-and-mortar business used a business model that functions only on promises and hope while paying 98.5% of its employees so little, the world would condemn the business as ludicrous; yet MLM’s, which rarely deliver on their promises, continue to deceive people through puffed up promises of profitability.

THOUGHT CONTROL AND BLAME

Most MLM plans remind me of cults in the way that they function. The times that I have been to a couple meetings for other such plans, the followers are invariably blind to the mathematical problems inherent in the model. When faced with the facts from their particular favorite MLM, they usually have no answers for me but are absolutely certain that I must be incorrect. They often refer me to their mentor, the person who recruited them.

Also like cults, these groups blame failure on their constituents for lacking hard work, persistence, skill, leadership, or competence. Even when I’ve seen people pour time and money into their MLM with more fervor than most would approach any other commission job, I’ve watched as they eventually cut their losses under the assumption that they just didn’t try hard enough, never considering that it might be the business, not them, that is the problem.

PYRAMID SELLING IN DISGUISE

Many (if not most) MLMs remain legal even though they are not financially viable. Their followers point to their legality as proof that they are not pyramid schemes or scams, which usually results in an argument based on circular reasoning when pushed (How do you know they are different from pyramid schemes? They’re legal. What makes them legal? They’re not a pyramid scheme).

The only legal difference I can see between an illegal pyramid scheme and a legal MLM is the pretense at selling a real product. To be fair, most real businesses have a natural pyramid-shaped income disparity with CEOs making big bucks on top, and grunt workers making hourly wages on the bottom. However, the viability of the business model rests with how closely tied the income is to the product being sold. And most MLMs in my experience are selling people and promises, not products.

The Federal Trade Commission has this to say of MLMs: “Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate. Some are pyramid schemes. It’s best not to get involved in plans where the money you make is based primarily on the number of distributors you recruit and your sales to them, rather than on your sales to people outside the plan who intend to use the products.”

CONCLUSION

So when you’re approached with a too-good-to-be-true opportunity, be careful. Ask difficult questions that annoy the recruiter. Look up the company’s income disclosure statement and ask the recruiter why nobody makes much money. Ask them whether you must front money, and ask whether you make the majority of your profit from sales of actual product or recruiting new sellers. Check Wikipedia’s list of MLMs for this opportunity. Ask yourself whether the business preys on your family and friends instead of selling real products to people outside the company. Think for yourself and do your own research; most scams cannot stand the test of reason.

Disclaimer: This post is used as an example of cultic thinking and doesn’t constitute an accusation that the organizations mentioned are necessarily part of a cult. This series is designed to give you, the reader, tools to spot red flags of manipulation and potential abuse. It is not a series meant to name and expose cults. The red flags are symptoms that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking, but it is ultimately up to you to decide whether a group or organization is safe. 

A Geek Girl’s Guide to Overcoming Social Anxiety at Work

I’ve been at my new job for two full weeks now, and in that time I’ve met so many new people that my social anxiety skyrockets as soon as I open my eyes in the morning.

I thought working retail forced me to interact with strangers, but I’ve discovered that it’s nothing compared to what I’m doing now in human services.

With retail, I had a prescribed set of interactions—greeting people, offering to help them, ringing them out, etc. It was easy to get into a robotic mindset where it wasn’t really me interacting with others, just my role. Now that I’m not able to hide behind a register, I’m reminded of how terrifying it can be to try to carry on a conversation with someone I don’t know (or with dozens of people I don’t know).

If my workplace were a party, I would sneak off after a few hours and go home to hide under covers with a book. Unfortunately, in this instance I don’t have the luxury of deciding my social meter has maxed out and that I need to get away.

Somehow I needed to find a way to make meeting people interesting and exciting rather than terrifying and draining.

And being the imaginative person that I am, I couldn’t go with a typical solution (those never work anyway). I had to try to make it magical, which I discovered was rather easy.

At some point this past Monday, I realized that my social anxiety wouldn’t exist if I were meeting elves and gnomes rather than humans. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time reading Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Maybe this is just an indication of how obsessed I am with fantasy worlds…but I suddenly knew how I needed to approach my own world.

My first week at my new job, I was just meeting people.

The second week at my job, I was meeting mythical creatures! (It’s okay to be jealous)

With each new person I met, I would try to see which race or species they would be if they came from Tolkien’s, Rowling’s, or Pratchett’s worlds. And it actually worked! This past week, I’ve met some really delightful personalities.

So far, I’ve come across a hobgoblin who certainly wouldn’t be someone I’d go hunting to find but who has proven to be adorable in her unconventional way,  a troll who is rather gentle and lovable despite the thick skin and somewhat obtuse point of view, and a couple of elves whose artistic souls peak out of their shy, distrustful eyes.

There’s even an orc. I’m equal parts terrified and fascinated by him at the moment, but I comfort myself with the idea that a single orc is probably far more scared of my fairy power than I am of his gnashing teeth.

My game has allowed me to look beyond the human mask that tend to be so terrifying and uncomfortable to see the beauty of their souls. Connecting people with mythical creatures keeps me mindful of the fact that they have a history, a story, a personality, even talents; and being mindful of their histories, stories, personalities, and talents reminds me to look for them rather than getting lost in my own anxieties about whether they will like my history, story, personality, or talents.

It hasn’t taken all of the stress out of my interactions. I cried during week two of my new job only slightly less than I cried during week one. But bringing magic and myth into my workplace with me has helped me find an enthusiasm for meeting new people that I never thought I would experience. Dare I say I’m even looking forward to meeting more creatures from my magical world? I may have to drop the label of “introvert” if I keep having this much fun with humans!