Yesterday I was asked by a local news station to comment a breaking story concerning the tragic death of a 54 year old obese woman who died after falling on the floor from a sofa. The woman was unable to get up and was cared for, feed and loved by her family. It was determined the she may have been on the floor in the family’s living room for as long as three weeks. Her care givers were her older brother and 70 year old widowed mother. We asked ourselves, “How does this happen? “
Similar stories are reported all over the world. A few years ago there was a report of an obese woman who died while sitting on a commode for possibly years. Then as now, people are stunned, angry and sickened to think of the suffering that these victims and their families must have endured. While others may point fingers, call for justice and criticize the families or even the victims for being obese this same sad event will happen over and over. Why?
After giving my interview last night and speaking with some colleagues, I reflected on the way our choices each day affect the lives of those we love and care about, our fellow human beings and our own health. We see the homeless people standing on the street everyday asking for a handout, pushing their grocery carts, carrying luggage, walking their children, sitting in the shadows of a building sheltering themselves from the wind and our eyes. We are no longer surprised or shocked because this is the norm. How does this become the norm?
When did the new behavior become the normal behavior? That is the question that I believe is at the basis of these devastating stories. I would like you to ask yourself how in your own life, other than seeing the millions of homeless in our country, how a new behavior became part of your norm. As a therapist I see clients when the behavior has been part of their lives for so long that they are no longer able to tolerate it or it has ended in tragedy.
Let’s consider these tragic stories of the women who died due to their medical conditions, circumstances and disorders becoming part of the norm in their families. These may seem like extreme and even unimaginable scenarios; however, in these homes, with these families this became part of the norm. Please understand that these situations do not happen overnight. For example, the death of a woman or child from abuse does not happen in isolation or without notice. One day something happens and it is ignored, discounted or even justified. It is minimized or there is apology. The behavior was accepted and therefore the cycle of dysfunction begins. Unless someone in the family is strong enough to intervene, ask for help, report or seek support the behavior continues to escalate.
When we look at the death of someone who has been fallen on the floor, is obese and cannot get up and wonder why the family would not call for help we have to realize that this family’s was all suffering. There are so many factors that lead to this level of dysfunction. The details of this story are not clear but it appears that the woman may have been unable to care for herself for some length of time. If you speculate about the situation you have to understand that her family had become her enablers. Her mother had always been her caregiver. Being in the role of a caregiver as a mother she was doing what a mother does. Possibly as far back as childhood there may have been a time when the new was that the daughter had gained weight, suffered a trauma, was diagnosed with a mental disorder such as depression, had a medical condition or injury which prevented mobility. At some point the people who loved this woman saw the quality of life deteriorating and began to make excuses, minimize or they may have even attempt to change the behavior. They may have even sought help. Their pleas for the new behavior to change, their concern or even their interventions may have been successful for a period of time or have failed. There may have been some backlash. They may have had a terrible experience with medical providers, social services or law enforcement in their efforts. Their loved one may have been angry or hurt due to their intervening and with drew more, escalated their behavior or inflected more pain on themselves or others.
As a mother and grandmother, therapist and wife, I thought about how you allow someone you love to mental or physically destroy themselves and you with their behavior. It is even hard for me, as a trained professional to wrap my mind around. However, these situations happen on smaller scales in every person’s live every day.
We do not think about it because it happens slowly and becomes part of the norm which is in our comfort zone. Yes, we become comfortable in our dysfunction. How many times have you heard someday say that they were in physical pain for years and then to suddenly discover that there was a way to get relief? They report many times that they had just gotten “so used to living with the pain that they stop looking for a cure.” They had become comfortable.
When we experience something unpleasant we can adapt to the new, change the situation or get away from the situation. Sometimes the way someone gets away is to disassociate, physically leave or emotionally disengage. However, unhealthy dissociating and emotionally disengaging is, adapting is the most difficult to change once it has been well established. By adapting we adjust our behavior to reflect the new. So the dysfunction in one creates the dysfunction in another or the whole family adapts.
On a large scale, let’s talk about our country. We have adapt, adjusted and even incorporated the mass impact of homelessness into our consciousness. We have adjusted our mental attitude, our physical response, our outrage and empathy so that we are able to live with seeing homeless adults and children without feeling. We justify our behavior by saying that we are just one person, it is the governments job to care for those unfortunate enough to fall thru the cracks or we blame the victims for their circumstances. We have the same reaction when we hear that an obese person has fallen and pass away because no one helped her up. We say, “Someone should have done something.”
I asked you to reflect on your own life as I did, do you have situations in your life that were new behaviors that you have adapted or adjusted to. Are you comfortable with a situation that is dysfunctional, destructive or harmful to yourself or others? When I asked if you are comfortable I am not asking if you like the behavior. You may not like it and it may be extremely painful, however, the thought of changing it is more painful or uncomfortable for you. You may fear a backlash; you may fear rejection or loss. Your fear may be justified. If you are in an abusive relationship you may need to get yourself in a safe place, remove yourself from a situation before you can change your own behavior. Please if you do not feel safe or see someone else in need seek help. If you are in present danger, see someone being abused or if you yourself, an elderly, disabled person or a child is in danger call 911.
In summary, when you see a behavior that you are not comfortable with, a situation that triggers a response within you that is new, do not discount your feelings. Be aware of your authentic feelings that are telling you that the behavior in unhealthy and listen to your gut. Trust yourself to know that whatever happens that you did the best you could to get the help that is needed.
If the behavior that once was new and made you uncomfortable has become part of the “just the way things are”, ask yourself whether you can see yourself living the same way in a year, five year or for the rest of your life. Changing a behavior can be painful but not changing it can be even more painful and as we have talked about dangerous. If is for you to realize that the benefits of changing are worth the costs.
Clients often present in therapy telling me about being in an abusive situation with a spouse saying that they didn’t have a choice. It is hard to hear but I tell them, “you had a choice and you chose to stay” and then you made another choice when the costs were high enough and you got help. Each of us has to get to that place with ourselves.
In the scenarios of the women that I referred to, the point came and went. This distorted thinking developed over years of accepting the new behavior as normal. The family adapted to the behavior, the situation and dealt with their anxiety by making the dysfunction, painful as it was a normal part of their life. The costs were high enough but the family had loss their ability to seek help due to whatever factors and level of dysfunction they were operating at. Despite their love for each other, the fear of change was overwhelming. This can happen when there have been too many painful changes in the family system and they do realize their own resilience. They only see their failures, the losses and the pain. They have lost hope.
If you are in need support to help you or your loved one find hope and change the situation they are in call me with your concerns. Making the call for help is the first step to improve the quality of your life, protecting the safety and welfare of others, and saving those who are most vulnerable. No matter what the situation, I believe there is always hope. You do not have to accept what has become the norm in your life. Together we can discuss how to proceed and we can work together to make the changes needed.