How Growing Up With Wire Monkeys Added To My Self Destructive Behaviour

“The theory of learned helplessness was then extended to human behavior, providing a model for explaining depression, a state characterized by a lack of affect and feeling. Depressed people became that way because they learned to be helpless. Depressed people learned that whatever they did, is futile. During the course of their lives, depressed people apparently learned that they have no control.”
“Learned Helplessness“, Duen Hsi Yen (1998)

“Although we experience the world in bits and pieces, the sequence in which we experience them flows together and we feel the world around us in a continuous panorama. When we try to communicate about it, we have to break it down into bits and pieces. Perhaps a large part of our trouble starts there.”
“Communications: The Transfer of Meaning”, Don Fabun (1968)

“[Psychologist Harry Harlow’s revolutionary experiments on maternal deprivation] found monkeys who had soft, tactile contact with their terry cloth mothers behaved quite differently than monkeys whose mothers were made out of cold, hard wire.

“Harlow hypothesized that members of the first group benefited from a psychological resource — emotional attachment — unavailable to members of the second. By providing reassurance and security to infants, cuddling kept normal development on track.”
Original Source: Harry F. Harlow, “Love in Infant Monkeys,” Scientific American, 1959

“thanks for writing that and
helping me feel less retarded.”
a comment left by the incomparable “dw” on my last post

I think I need to expand a little on my last post. I think some of it has been misinterpreted and I think some of it was overlooked and I think it’s because I didn’t use enough words.

The post wasn’t meant to be about compliments and money, but those two issues were what most people concentrated on in their comments.

But the difficulty I have accepting, and especially believing, compliments and acknowledgements, as well as budgeting my income, are symptoms of something much larger. They’re not the disease.

Compliments, as I wrote in my comment on the post, do feel good. I do encourage them. I have received them in the past and I’m still alive and, without a doubt, better off for them. My problem is not being able to believe them, or to be able to accept them as they’re generally meant… as acknowledgement of having done something well.


Again, this comes from a lack of self-esteem brought on by a number of factors, including over a decade of untreated manic depression and several family factors — which I get into later in this post. But my inability to accept praise is not the ultimate problem, it’s a minor symptom.

As is my current budgetary lapse which, as I pointed out in the post, has actually become an anomaly. Having no money halfway through a month for only the second time in a year is significantly better than I’ve done over most of my adult life.

The medications and the appointments with my psychiatrist over the past four or five years have helped immeasurably. I am recovering. In fact I am so far into my recovery that I can examine the behaviours I have shown in the past and how self-destructive they have been.

I can also see how current behaviours are remnants and continuations of the behaviours which started a long, long time ago. How I’m dealing with the diabetes is very close to how I initially avoided dealing with the manic depression. In that I’m not dealing with it at all. I’m missing appointments, I’m missing medication doses and I’m not monitoring my blood sugar.

Just like how, between 1988/9 and 2003/4 I was unable to take control over the manic depression. Except then it was almost entirely due to the disease, and now it’s because of the behaviours I learnt living through so many years of suicidal thoughts and the extreme lack of self-worth which comes from all it implies.

Living with that level and frequency of random, crippling and suicidal depression meant isolating myself from friends, it meant not caring enough about living in order to shower, floss, exercise, cleaning my apartment, washing my clothes, making sure I had sheets and a whole lot more.

And now, even with the manic depression mostly under control for barely a year, those learned behaviours still aren’t.

Neither are these the symptoms of underachieving. Underachieving is the ‘swollen glands’ of self-destructive behaviour… it’s just another symptom of a much larger disease.

All of that comes from the manic depression. But then there are the self-destructive issues and behaviours which come from how I was raised.

I believe many people have some or all of the same self-destructive behaviours I continue to exhibit. At least the less immediately self-destructive ones, like the flossing and the cleaning. Maybe even some of the ones I have written about in previous posts, like the changing of jobs every six months, or moving apartments so often I’ve lived in fifty-two houses and apartments.

But I don’t believe most, or even many, people have the behaviours so ingrained or that they go so deep.

Just like the previous symptoms had a cause in the manic depression, there are two central causes for my non-bipolar self-destructive behaviours. One: I was raised in a cult based on various forms of communism. Two: my mother was sick and hospitalized for a significant amount of time during my first three to four years.

Very early in my life it was decided by the cult no child would have bonds to any specific parent over those of the group. It’s a Maoist thing, but Marxism comes close to the absolutist Mao stuff. So I spent the first eight years of my life having only a vague idea who my specific parents were and, although my mother did try her best to be a mother within the group, my care was a designated chore to the cult members.

I’m not going any further into the weirdness of that, other than as a cause for my self-destructive behaviours.

However, as an example of what went on, the mother of a newborne was told she would not be allowed to breastfeed, as it would cause an intimate connection between the two which the cult could not equal. Then, after some deliberation, they bought her a breast pump.

My father, who was the head of the cult, has never had anything to do with me… even while we lived in the same house. After my mother escaped with my brother and I, we were cut off from my father’s side of the family. No grandparents, no cousins, no uncles… but that had already been the case as the cult became more paranoid and cut off ties to their own families.

On my mother’s side of the family her mother, my grandmother, was abusive towards me and my grandfather was neglectful. The only father-figure I had while growing up, my moms fiancé of two years, died from an aneurysm when I was seventeen.

So my self-doubt, lack of self-worth and self-esteem, were bred into me. Because, as child reading studies have shown, people do not grow when all they’re offered is a wire parent.

How I react to people, girlfriends, friends, teachers, has been set from childhood. I cannot get close to people because when they do something innocent, like tell me they’re busy tonight and can’t come over, or they don’t react ‘properly’ to my compliments, or to my kindness, I’ll withdraw from their life.

The self-destructive behaviours which come from my childhood are set in the same marble as those which come from the untreated manic depression.

…there’s a whole lot more of course, which I’ve already written about and which I’ll write more on later on. I just wanted to add some things to the last post, because despite what I wrote there’s more to this than me leaving the sink full of dishes for almost three months.




About Gabriel...

...diagnosed with manic depression when I was nineteen, for the next 14-years I lived without treatment or a recovery plan. I've been homeless, one time I graduated college, I've won awards for reporting on Internet privacy issues, and a weekly humour column. In 2002 I finally hit bottom and found help. It's now 2022, and I have an 8-year old son, and a 12-year old son... I’m usually about six feet tall, and I'm pretty sure I screwed up my book deal. I mostly blog at
This entry was posted in Bipolar, Bipolar Disease, Bipolar Disorder, Classic, Clinical Depression, crazy people with no pants, Diabetes, Family, Father, Granny, Health, Manic Depression, Poverty, Salted Truths. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to How Growing Up With Wire Monkeys Added To My Self Destructive Behaviour

  1. thordora says:

    Man I do that, the over reaction, the inability to handle normal life stuff in turn-I’ve always chalked it up to my enormous trust issues, and maybe that’s all it is. You know how long it takes me to believe someone is actually, truly interested in ME, not sex, or convinience, or something else?

    YEARS. Something I’m learning to work through lately-acceptance, at face value, of what people do and say towards me. It’s really hard, when everything atom in me screams RUN!

    I’d blame what you’ve been through for a lot of things more than the bipolar. But hey, then you run into chicken/egg ad naueseum.

    And fucking COOL truckasaurus!!!!

  2. Gabriel... says:

    Isn’t it? There was me and three other reporters getting the demonstration. The thing was quick on its wheels too… very zippy. The “driver” is a guy working an RC unit but, get this, the guy doing all the crushing and burning is in the head.

    And holy CRAP, you should see the photos I have of the Jet Truck… I’ll try to put it up next post.

    I prefer the Chicken and Steak option… half dozen of one, six of the other.

  3. giannakali says:

    How I react to people, girlfriends, friends, teachers, has been set from childhood. I cannot get close to people because when they do something innocent, like tell me they’re busy tonight and can’t come over, or they don’t react ‘properly’ to my compliments, or to my kindness, I’ll withdraw from their life.

    you don’t think this is a permanent situation do you? We can relearn you know. We can choose new behaviors…I think you know this…but it doesn’t sound like it from just that paragraph…

    do you know about brain neuroplasticity? our brains can heal and our behaviors can change.

    one of my favorite “categories” on my blog: [here]

  4. exactscience says:

    I am with Giannakali.

    It is possible to unlearn things. It takes a metric assload of time but it is possible.

    We all have our wire monkeys (and I am totally stealing that as a controlling metaphor for things that fuck us up) and most of us are suckers enough to have blogs to help us deal with them.

  5. bine says:

    um … i heard about “learned helplessness” for the first time today, during my first ever therapy session. i am just trying to wrap my head around the idea of “unlearning” things, and i’m still a bit overwhelmed by all the info i got today and by the things i started to understand in just 45 minutes time.
    but i am ready to believe we can unlearn things, even if they were bred into us. we can overcome instinctive fears too, can’t we? we can overcome phobias, or revise prejudices. i’ll have to think about this some more.

    also, what kind of crazy self-sabotage is this stupid forgetting of meds? i’m doing wonderful on celexa but i can’t for my fucking life remember to take the stuff. i’ve been on the pill for 10 years and i didn’t forget it once (okay, that was 20 years ago, but i’m not senile yet). why is it so hard to remember to take a medication that will help me to make it through my day?

  6. Truck and dinosaur combined = awesome. My son is going to enjoy saying “truckasaurus” so thanks for posting that photo!

    I get a lot from reading your posts. I know it can be intimidating to reveal such terrible memories from your past, so I appreciate that you did. Each time you allow yourself to have an unexpected reaction, so that you prove to yourself your reactions are not set in marble, you will grow as a person. I never expected you to write about the cult because I read that you didn’t want to tell people. So I was heartened when you did go ahead and write a little about it.

  7. Immi says:

    Marble can be carved and re-carved. But damn, being the marble that’s being re-carved hurts like hell. *offers hugs*

  8. Ameroux says:

    It took a lot of courage to post even that much of your childhood history. Learned helplessness is definitely real, but as others have said, you can learn new ways, too. I mean that in a hopeful sense, not a “just do it” naivete sense. But my suggestion to be gentle with yourself still stands. Take care.

  9. XUP says:

    Can I say Holy F***?? How do you begin to dig your way out of all that shit? Well, I guess that’s partly what this blog is all about. And I want to second everything Ameroux said above

  10. Well, maybe just me but “learned helplessness?” It’s always ticked me off.

    Indeed, if we’ve been through a hell of a lot trauma-wise and what not, we can try and “get over” shit but have we really “learned” to be so “helpless?”

    To me it just sounds like we’re doomed to a life of utter crap and that’s it. A fucking death sentence.

    When you “learn” you are actively using your brain, are you not? Think about it. You sit in school, you study, you think. You focus upon the information, rework it in your mind, do your homework, take an exam and get a mark based upon what you have learned.

    When you’ve been traumatised and all of that growing up–that is not learning. You have no choice. You just soak it up like a tiny, wee sponge. As a result, you are basically pre-programmed. That isn’t “learning.”

    More like Alien Abduction? Sorry, stupid joke. *rolls eyes*

    Okay, mini-rant over. Some people not agree with my perspective but whatever. However, I still agree with what some have said that we may be able to wade through all of it and get better at the things that cause us pain. I did say that above. Not to mention, I have done it a little myself? But not completely–no. And I doubt I ever will as I am stuck with buggered neurochemistry on top of trauma.

    I can’t “un-learn” my brain chemistry! I also can’t change things from my past that I had no control over–like the Parental Units being: Mom a total nutcase and non-bio dad an asshole.

    I can not “un-learn” their behaviour.

    Sorry…ranting again. It’s just that you only have what…so much to work with?

    From a more personal perspective, I really understand this, darling. Even though my situation is different, it is very much the same so I can completely relate.

    Another thing I wanted to mention as per the “side effects,” if you will, all of this can come about with AD(H)D as well. No, ’tis true. I know because I have both–Bipolar and ADD. So I can get fucked over by both. They both share a lot of similarities so again, I get you on this absolutely.


  11. bromac says:

    Maybe instead of “unlearning” it, you learn to work within the parameters of what has happened. Knowing is half the battle. Takes forever to change reactions/emotions, but it certainly can be done.

  12. Bryan says:

    Hey man how’s it going? Just started catching up on blogs and started writing again the other day, been out of it for a while.

    Part of it was I was running out of things to write about, part of it was that I was just trying to live a little bit off the net, and another part of it is I’ve just been a little fucked up because I haven’t been able to take my meds right for sometime because money keeps getting tighter every payday.

    I’ve been running into toothaches and my dumb ass started drinking off and on also to help get through the pain which is a brilliant move and so very productive let me tell you. I just need to ask Santa for a trip to the dentist so I can get one pulled and another filled and get this shit over with (but that would be the smart thing to do and I’m not always that prudent with my health).

    I had a good talk the other day with my therapist about a theory that I might be a part of vanishing twin syndrome and she didn’t think I was nuts. Considering some of the shit I’ve spouted before in my sessions that’s on record it’s about in the middle. But she agreed with my reasoning that if she had the things going on with her that I described she probably would have come up with the same conclusion also. Being treated for bipolar isn’t the only thing in my record but it’s the one that I focus on the most because I have lived with it the longest. Schizo traits were just thrown in as a matter of professional opinion when I started back in treatment in Dec. of ’06, but I will probably end up posting about that good stuff on my blog sometime.

    Hope that things are going good for you man.

    Take care

  13. dw says:

    my wire monkey is a dentist. i think it’s accidentally your fault.

    anyway, i had this dream.

    which reminded me of this vid.

    etc, cte…

    i know you’ll find more logic in it than i ever will.

    peace out, mister. be good to you.

  14. Gabriel... says:

    I don’t think any situation is permanent. But I don’t believe we can ever unlearn what we’ve been taught or what we’ve grown into. Change, definitely. After we understand what behaviours are damaging to us we can definitely learn new behaviours to counter them… definitely, but only after a whole lot of work.

    Hello Fighting Windmills, I’m glad your son enjoyed the photo. I have written a little about where and how I was raised in a few posts, but not for a while and only generally. Most of the clinical depressions I have come from those eight years, but there aren’t enough specific memories to write anything more than “here’s the general philosophy of how I was raised, and here’s who was and wasn’t there”.

    immi, I like the “marble can be carved” image. I was originally going to use granite in the metaphor but I changed it for marble… it seemed easier to carve into, I didn’t think of it in terms of maybe re-carving. Cool.

    Well holy crap, welcome back Bryan. You’ve been missed buddy.

    dw, I think most dentists are wire monkeys. That’s one of my favourite songs… thanks.

  15. Pingback: Eating Steak On A Sawdust Budget « …salted lithium.

  16. petrona says:

    Wow, your childhood was heartbreakingly sad. I think even being able to recognise the impact it’s had on your life is a major step. Hang in there.

  17. Gabriel... says:

    Thanks petrona, I appreciate the concern. You’re the second person this month to use “heartbreaking” to describe my childhood. Even in retrospect I don’t see it that way. “Different” and “wrong” are two words I’d use, but “heartbreaking” only in terms of opportunities lost which might have been possible had I lived in a more “average” family.

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