There are a few songs that when I hear them on the radio I can’t help but crank up the volume because the song is so infectious. And example is one of the more famous “one-hit wonder” songs of the 1980s, Canadian New Wave band Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance.” The song’s melody is bouncy, but its lyrical content and Ivan Doroschuk’s deep baritone make it also somewhat threatening at the same time. The emotional response the song produces in me is one that I can best describe as “euphoric rebellion.” It makes me want to tell the world to go to hell, not out of a sense of antipathy, but out of desire for freedom from judgment. Not surprising, considering the song is in fact a “protest song.” Men Without Hats have become an 80s punchline, largely due to the ridiculous video for “The Safety Dance,” but like all New Wave bands, their origins come from punk. And punk is nothing if not defiant.
The meaning of the song is often attributed to protest against nuclear war, very much on the minds of listeners in the early Eighties. However, this is not true. The lyrics of the song refer to a particular type of dancing called “pogoing,” a form of New Wave dancing that was born in clubs as Disco was dying in the late Seventies. Disco dancing required having a partner, which therefore required the dancers have sufficient space on the dance floor to move together. Pogoing, on the other hand, like all New Wave dancing, was done alone. It involved standing in one place, keeping your feet planted and torso rigid, and thrashing your arms about or twisting your upper body in different directions without moving your lower body. The effect produced looked like a person bouncing their head, chest, and arms back and forth like a pogo, hence the name.
To Disco club bouncers who had never seen pogoing before and knew nothing about it, it looked extremely dangerous, particularly as pogo dancers would occasionally, but unintentionally, bounce into one another or strike one another with their thrashing arms. Therefore they would tell pogoers to stop or be thrown out of the club. The Men Without Hats song “The Safety Dance” is actually a protest against this practice of bouncers stopping pogo dancers for fear that they would make contact with and hurt another dancer. The lyrics “Everybody look at your hands” in the chorus refer to bouncer demands that pogoers watch their hands and arms while dancing to avoid contact. Nonetheless, the song exhorts its listeners that they should be “taking the chance” even though “Everything is out of control.”
So basically the song is saying we need to dance despite the risk of violence.
Violence produces one of two emotional reactions: anger or fear. These two emotions are designed to trigger one of our two basic human drives: fight or flight. If you are going to stand your ground and fight, you need enough anger to overwhelm the natural animalistic aversion to pain. Your brain knows that injury is likely and therefore pumps your body so full of adrenalin and endorphins that your nerve endings are overwhelmed and cannot respond to inflicted pain. If you are going to run, you are going to need the same adrenalin and endorphins to allow the nerves in your nervous system to ignore the excruciating pain caused by your lungs’ inability to draw enough oxygen to prevent the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles. This why seconds after you stop running in fear because you feel you are far enough removed from the threat, it suddenly feels like your muscles are on fire. They have literally been burned by an overabundance of lactic acid.
Despite our human history being filled with warfare, we are, by nature, wired to avoid violence because violence decreases our chances of survival. We don’t go around killing each other, not because of an external sense of religious morality, but because constant violence makes survival exceptionally difficult.
Therefore violence is not intrinsic to our nature and is typically, in rational people, only initiated when we perceive our survival is threatened.
If you subscribe to this view that rational people will only become violent when they perceive their survival to be threatened, then the concept of making violent acts illegal is largely redundant, as we are already wired, if rational, to avoid violence. Therefore, it can be argued that acts of violence that are “unprovoked” are in fact irrational, or essentially “psychopathic.” In common culture we tend to use the term “psychopathic” to refer to those who commit irrational acts of horrific violence, although quite literally the term refers to any person who performs an act which reveals a failure of rational thought and can be traced to a “pathology” within the brain. To put it more simply, “psychopathic” is a known or unknown pathology (disease process) within the brain (the psyche).
Thanks to Hollywood films like Psycho and 80s slasher films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, or Friday the 13th, the “psychopath” is portrayed as a victim of psychological trauma who is mindlessly compelled to carry out acts of violence against innocents who had nothing to do with the original trauma. In truth, psychopaths are neither mindless nor generally the victims of trauma. Media stories of serial killers tend to focus on elements of childhood “difference” that could be the cause of their crimes, ignoring the millions who experience similar upbringings but never become killers. The media does this because, as I said earlier, we are not intrinsically violent; therefore it is natural for us as humans to look for a “logical” cause for such unprovoked violence. Therefore the slightest “oddity” in a serial killer’s upbringing is latched onto as the “cause.”
I guarantee you that if any of us were to suddenly kill a half a dozen people at random, something “odd” or “different” about us would be found in our background that “foreshadowed” our descent into madness.
Since Jani’s story first became public, I have been criticized several times by adult sufferers of mental illness, particularly adult schizophrenics, because they perceive me as perpetuating the stigma that schizophrenics are violent and therefore a danger to those around them. I do actually get where they are coming from. Schizophrenia, like most mental illnesses, is so misunderstood by the general public that the last thing a person with schizophrenia, who is only trying to function, needs is to suddenly find themselves isolated because those around them thing they might be in danger from sudden and unpredictable outbursts of violence. I understand. They tell me that those with schizophrenia are far more likely to suffer violence at the hands of others than to hurt someone else, and this is without question true… for the general population. But what these adult sufferers of schizophrenia so worried about the stigma don’t realize is that this maxim does not hold true for caregivers of those with schizophrenia. If you live with someone who has schizophrenia, you almost certainly will get hurt at some point.
Notice I didn’t say “killed.” What those protesting the stigma of schizophrenia are really upset about is the perception that schizophrenics can be fatally violent. To themselves, yes. If you love or care for somebody with schizophrenia, you have to worry about them killing or harming themselves severely all the time. That is, hopefully, what the medications are designed to prevent, or at least lessen the likelihood of this happening.
But caretakers of those afflicted with schizophrenia, because we have to try and come between our loved one and his/her illness, are often the target of violence. It isn’t intentional. When Jani turns violent on a dime, as she can, she doesn’t mean to. It is the same basic fight or flight response that we all have, yet it is being controlled by something else. When Jani becomes violent, she is not herself. It is as if another force has, for a brief moment, taken control of Jani’s body and is initiating the fight or flight response based on a perceived threat. The only problem is that the threat isn’t “real,” at least to us. “Fight or flight” response is located in the lower brain, but it must be initiated by the pre-frontal cortex, or the “thinking brain.” With Jani and those like her, periodically the diseased part of the brain which responds to the hallucinations triggers the fight or flight response, resulting either in violence against whatever the psychosis perceives as a threat (often the caregiver) or a desire to do something dangerous (a misfire of the “flight” response) in which anybody trying to stop Jani from harming herself or putting herself at risk will also become the target of violence simply because that person (usually the caregiver again) is preventing Jani from carrying out her “flight” response. The upshot is that caregivers to mentally ill children and adults can be the targets of violence simply because they have to, by nature of their job as parents or other caregivers, come between the child and whatever the psychosis is driving the child to do.
Susan and I and every parent of a mentally ill child I have ever known get hurt because we get in the middle between our children and their psychosis, which is like walking across the no man’s land between two warring armies. You are going to get hit in the crossfire.
Everyday, we parents must come between our child and that which is why trying to harm them and so by default that which is trying to harm them, once prevented from doing so, will turn on us. We know it isn’t our children trying to hurt us, or our brothers, sisters, or parents. It is the psychosis. It is the disease.
And since you can’t kill the disease without killing the person it inhabits, you have to, as a caregiver, accept a little collateral damage. That is if you want to keep being a caregiver.
I am all for fighting stigma, but simply trying to fight the stigma that mentally ill people are violent doesn’t help anyone, least of all those who are mentally ill, because it plays into the very stigma it is trying fight. The true stigma that we need to be fighting is that the stigma that prevents mentally ill children and adults from getting the help they need, which is the fear of being on the receiving end of a violent psychotic episode. It is the fear we need to fight against, because it is that fear that allows social services to deny care to children and adults with mental illness.
From what I have been able to gather, the primary reason that Jani’s intern program was shut down was concerns for the safety of the interns. Mostly this was because one of our former interns, unbeknownst to us, had gone to work with another child, a child who was significantly less stable than Jani. This intern was then left alone with the child, which should not have happened. It took many months before we and the interns felt comfortable enough to let Jani go with them alone. I say “comfortable” in the loosest sense of the word because I was never truly comfortable, which is in no way a reflection on the interns. I am never comfortable when Jani is out of my sight because I am afraid if Jani has a psychotic episode, I will not be there to diffuse it. I will be trapped across town unable to respond to a crisis. With the first and second set of interns, either Susan or myself always rode shotgun. Eventually though, the interns got comfortable enough with Jani and Jani got comfortable enough with them and we got comfortable enough with the interns to allow Jani to occasionally go alone with them.
So this intern should not have been left alone with a child she knew nothing about. There seems to be a perception amongst the interns that quit that we forced or required this. We didn’t. We knew nothing about it. Had we known we would not have allowed the intern to put herself into that position.
But for whatever reason, this intern consented to be left alone with this child. Most likely she based this decision on having been alone with Jani without incident, but as I had warned the interns before, specifically in regards to Jani, never assume that how Jani is on one day or even in one moment will provide any sense of how she will be during the next visit or even the next moment. Psychosis, because it is not triggered by external factors, can come out of nowhere, which means that anybody who works with Jani can never let their guard down, even for a moment.
Jani’s apartment is devoid of all sharp objects. All cooking is done in Bodhi’s apartment, and even there the sharp knives are well out of easy access. We both keep Jani’s time in Bodhi’s apartment to a minimum and never, ever leave her alone with Bodhi, no matter how well she might be doing with Bodhi at that particular point in time. These are precautions that as a parent of child with psychosis you must take. Other parents I know have installed locks on doors to protect themselves or other family members, creating what is essentially a “panic room.” Others have siblings sleep in the parents’ bedroom. All of us in one way or another turn our homes into psych wards, doing our best to remove any dangers. For example, we have no glass in both apartments. Susan replaced all of our glass and glass cookware with plastic plates, bowls, and cups, purely as a precautionary measure.
From what I have been told, this girl’s house contained sharp objects, including knives and scissors. We have heard conflicting stories about what happened, ranging from the girl came after the intern with sharp scissors to the girl threw books, toys, and furniture at the intern. The intern was forced to call the police and paramedics.
Six days after this incident, I met this girl along with Jani at a park. At that time, she appeared largely “normal.” However, I have no doubt that the intern was the target of violence because that is how psychosis works. I am sure if I am around this girl enough, eventually I will be a target, too. In fact, this weekend the girl’s grandmother is supposed to go on Susan’s radio show and I am supposed to watch this girl. Along with Jani, Bodhi, and two interns who stuck with us. And the more I think about it, the less I think it is a good idea. It is not that I have any fear for myself. If something goes wrong, I could send Jani and Bodhi with the interns but that would leave me alone, in public, with a girl whom I do not know how she will react if I have to restrain her. You can imagine what it would look like to see a grown man trying to restrain a girl screaming for help. It is recipe for me ending up in the back of a police car.
Now Jani will be there as well, as historically psychotic children seem to do well together. But I know Jani like the back of my hand. I know how to work her down from a psychotic episode. It involves staying calm and continually offering solutions. With someone in a psychotic state, you have to be able to look into the abyss without it swallowing you up. You can’t get scared. You can’t get angry. You have to stay calm no matter how out of the control the person is getting.
But you have to know enough about the person to know potential triggers. You have to know what relieves stress. And you have to be in an environment where you have some control over the situation, at the very least what we parents of mentally ill or spectrum kids call an “exit strategy,” in other words “if things go bad how the hell do we get them out there?”
With other people’s mentally ill or spectrum kids my general course of action is to do what would give a straight behaviorist conniption fits: I give in. Basically, I let them have whatever they want in order to keep their stress level low so they don’t blow. Yes, you have to teach your kids, even mentally ill ones, to deal with disappointment but there is a time and a place. Most parents can say “no” to their kids in a public place without having to worry about the child becoming violent. And we are not talking tantrums here. We are talking full-on gouge your eyes out violence.
Jani’s history of violence has been covered in every media story about her, yet people are always surprised by it when it finally rears its ugly head. Partly this is because most of the time Jani is a sweet and wonderful, if a bit eccentric, child. Partly it is because you can never understand the nature of psychosis until you actually see somebody suddenly go into a psychotic state. And partly because you just can’t conceive of the violence until you are on the receiving end of it.
And then as soon as it came, it is over, and Jani remembers nothing. She can tell from your demeanor that she did something wrong but if you ask her what she did she will guess.
And she always “I hit,” even if she didn’t. Because that is her default response.
So the professor shut down the intern program, fearing for the safety of her interns (there was also an earlier incident where Jani attacked an intern because she was trying to stop Jani from punching her fist through glass). It is her obligation to put the safety of her interns first.
I get that and do not criticize her for it. As a college instructor myself, I am also responsible for the safety of my students. No college intern program can knowingly put its students into a situation where they might be in danger, at least not at the undergraduate level. At the graduate level they can but only if the student signs a waiver releasing the university of liability should the student be injured or killed. Otherwise, any time a student is on campus or conducting university business, the university is responsible for that student’s safety.
So the fatal flaw in the intern program that we had planned as the cornerstone of the Village Project (soon to be renamed) turned out to be that in the process of assisting a family with a mentally ill child, the intern or interns can get hurt.
But here is the kicker: We had to create the intern program in the first place because the Wraparound Team from the Santa Clarita Child & Family Center said exactly the same thing: they had to protect the safety of their “team.” And these are supposedly trained professionals.
I would not expect college interns to be able to stand firm in the face of psychotic violence, but what is a family with a mentally ill child to do if the trained professionals from the Department of Mental Health and their contracted agencies won’t put themselves at risk either? This was also one of the reasons why Maryvale, a “psychiatric residential facility,” would not take Jani. Just Deveroux in Texas where they respond to psychotic violence with force, in the same way prison guards respond to riots.
No, individuals with schizophrenia are not a danger to society. Yes, they are more a danger to themselves. But in order to prevent them from harming themselves requires putting oneself at a level of risk, even if you don’t use restraints (which should always be the last resort and only done by trained professionals under observation by supervisors). Most of the time, I can talk Jani out of a violent state, although I take a few lumps in the process. The best way to bring someone out of a psychotic state is to be in the room with them, speaking calmly. But that requires opening yourself to risk.
If you are a parent of a mentally ill child, you have to do this. You were drafted the moment your child was born. But if you don’t have a child who is mentally ill, or a family member you care for, you are a volunteer. Even if you are a paid therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, MFT, social worker, etc, you are still a volunteer.
Working with those who suffer from psychosis is not for everybody.
Just like the Army, it is your choice to sign up or not.
But don’t enlist if you aren’t prepared to go to war.