When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they mean they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth.
Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett
I was just thinking about some phrases that professionals use on Twitter that stop me in my tracks. I think that they were phrases that similar people used when I was forced to be in contact with them when I was younger and they were involved with my family. Invariably when I was a child certain phrases made me angry with the officials. ‘It’s complicated’ was definately one of them.
It’s a peculiar thing but I seem to be saying online what I used to say in the past. I think I was better at being clear when I was younger because I had not had all the experiences of bullying and callousness that I later learnt anyone in the ‘care or ‘health’ systems were collectively capable of. Now I get distressed more quickly because all those old feelings come back and I have the experience to notice old patterns and predict how the conversation will go. Feeling defeated and overwhelmed with hopelessness happens more easily when you have lot of experience of what is likely to happen.
‘It’s complicated’ is the response I got from when I was 12 yrs or so onwards to observations I made to the officials who were meant to be helping my parent, or had to find something to do with me because of the situation, like:
- forced treatment is not treatment it is abuse and unless someone is being actively violent there is no justification for it
- if someone is hurt by what you are doing you have to stop
- many interventions in the psychiatric system are about behavioural control and are not used to help someone get better; including seclusion, restraint, medication and detention
- the function of psychiatric nurses are to deliver medication either through voluntary means, increasingly coercive means or force however well you wrap it up in nice talk, otherwise their social support and healing role could be done by someone who could be kind without threats
- if you detain someone in a context where they are likely to be further damaged, such as the current mental health system, then you have chosen to be responsible for that damage whether you directly inflict it or not, being a ‘cog in the wheel’ is not a defence against complicity in Human Rights Abuses, actions being state sanctioned is not a defence against Human Rights Abuses
- the mental health system is confused about whether it is a service to promote healing or to enforce social control
- you cannot be a Dr and a prison govenor; you cannot be a nurse and a prison guard; you cannot be a health system and enforce social control
- it makes no sense to say someone is ill and has no responsibility then make them responsible for their behaviour when you don’t like it
- if you separate me and my sibling you are not showing ‘care’, you are displaying power and doing harm. I will never trust you again because you are not trustworthy and I do not forgive.
- if you come into my house with violence and say it is help I do not in any way have to believe you or do what you say
- if I could resolve this situation without brutality and force you adults are failing and showing your true colours every time you resort to it
- I have done nothing wrong, you cannot force me to leave this house and go with you
- You have the power to make me go into care or separate me from my brother, but not the courage to accept the consequences of the damage, you expect me to take that difficult bit from you
What is particularly obscene about the response ‘It’s complicated….’ to these sorts of observations is that I clearly understood the tensions in the various systems that made it impossible to navigate them safely. Every one of those statements already acknowledged things were complicated and each comment is evidence that I was deeply engaged with interacting with people in the system to highlight those inexplicable processes. When anyone started their response with ‘It’s complicated…’, the unspoken things I actually heard them say were:
- You don’t understand you are too stupid
- I can’t change it and it’s my job to make sure something happens
- I don’t understand what’s going on myself
- I don’t want to understand what is happening better because if I can remain blind to what is going on things will be better for me
- I don’t want to implement your solution
- I can’t do anything about this
- I won’t do anything about this because the personal cost to me is greater than I wish to pay
- Know your place
- I don’t care
- I don’t have the skills
- I don’t want to change
- I don’t like you
- It’s not my responsibility so I am not going to do anything
- How dare you challenge me
- Don’t expect a service that claims to help you to change so that it actually helps you
- I don’t want to acknowledge that your society doesn’t care about you and so as a direct reflection of that this service and everyone in it doesn’t care in any meaningful way either
- Stop being difficult
- I want you to believe in these systems because it’s all I’ve got to offer you
Every so often people who already knew that the system was complicated and had their own ideas about how the tensions played out in any given situation came along. Generally these people didn’t say, ‘it’s complicated’. Unlike most officials they didn’t accept things and they were not pushing back on all fronts like me. Generally these people didn’t respond to me by saying what they were doing and justifying it again by repeating themselves, trying to force me to agree with the status quo. These people tended to give me better explanations for the way people were. Even more importantly they were able to follow where my thinking was going. I felt that these people had a capacity for radically imagining how the world could operate differently and the courage to take steps to move towards that world. Most officials seemed to be unable to cope with the idea that things could be different and seemed stuck at the point where they could only make sense of concrete, easy to understand things like a written procedure. Sometimes the phrase meant ‘there are a range of factors working here and these are what I understand them to be.’
I didn’t think things were really that complicated. From my point of view each and every adult had more power than me and each and every adult was using that power to hurt me and my family. That was a choice each one made not to help. All they had to do was think my sibling and I were worth enough to choose to hear that they were hurting us and to have the courage to stop. After all I was expected to stop hurting them by not being upset, by not asking questions, by understanding how difficult it was for them, by doing as I was told, by accepting that the way things were was for the best. The fact that this made my situation complicated didn’t matter. ‘Complicated’ is a mask for a lack of empathy and an assertion that the person highlighting a concern or a tension doesn’t get to define what the problem is. It always preceeds a statement about how nothing is going to be different. It is an excuse of inaction. ‘Complicated’ is a matter of power.
I think ‘it’s complicated’ is perhaps true. It was complicated for me because many people can’t see their role in the system clearly, it was complicated for me because many people can’t see the irreconcilable tensions in the system, it was complicated for me because people lack integrity, it was complicated for me because many people are ideologically blind, it was complicated for me because people have chosen to be indifferent, it was complicated for me because officials don’t understand trauma, it was complicated for me because avoidance or denial of pain distorted thinking, it was complicated for me because people like power trips and enjoy being unkind, it’s was complicated for me because systems pit people against one another to maintain power.
An important thing I learnt to remember is that complicated service systems are set up to keep themselves going. They make each person in that system untrustworthy because each person is limited by the system. Individuals can seem well intentioned, capable and skilled, but their limits are set by the system they are in. Intentions are a poor barometer of whether an individual will act helpfully, or of when they will stop being supportive. Survival for an vulnerable person in contact with a complicated system requires learning very quickly the system limits in order to predict the actions of the people in it. Those system limits are not what people claim the system is offerring- the limits are the gap between what you imagine might help and what you discover you can reasonably expect. Understanding the system limits requires imagining the best possible system and bearing the disappointment of being in receipt of the one the officials accept.
Really, when the officials said, ‘It’s complicated‘ it just meant, ‘It’s too complicated for me so I am going to keep on making it simple so I can cope with it. Stop complicating things for me.’