Monday, August 23, 2010

Pavlovian Dog Slobber

I was thinking about Pavlov's pooches today.  Do you know the story?  Pavlov did an experiment with his dogs where, every time he rang a little bell, he'd feed them.  He recorded their saliva count and found that the sound of the bell ringing, after a time, caused them to drool.  That got my "two-and-two-makes-green" brain to thinking.  I certainly drool at the sight of a hamburger commercial at three in the morning.  I'm just as conditioned to stimuli as any other mammal or, for that matter, probably any living creature on earth.  Even plants respond to music, and I get a kick out of how much they seem to love heavy metal in comparison to Mozart. 

Clickety clack, the knitting needle synopses in my brain began weaving together a scenario about lifetime conditioning; how environment affects everything.  I despise thousand year-old-eggs but my buddy from China thinks they're delicious.  He, in turn, hates buttercream frosting, which I can't even wrap my mind around as a possibility.  Physically, our taste buds are virtually the same but our environments were vastly different.  He was raised on a diet totally dissimilar to my everything-fried-in-bacon raising.  We were conditioned, like Pavlov's dogs, to react a certain way due to our environment.  And that's just our taste buds.  What about emotions?  Why can't our emotions and reactions be conditioned to stimuli from the past, just like the ringing of those little bells? 

I remember going through a phase in my teens where I hated to have my head touched; would react violently at times by something as simple as fingers brushing through my hair.  I just couldn't stand anybody to touch my head.  At first, I thought it was because Dad liked to taunt me with face slaps, over and over, until the side of my face was puffy and sore.  He considered that a kindness due to my gender.  He punched my brothers.  With the return of some of my memories from early childhood, I think the head touching goes deeper and grosser than mere slaps to the face. 

The same knee jerk reaction happened when I received even the slightest hint of criticism from anybody.  Insecurity made me a rabid dog in the criticism department: stomp your foot and I'd charge.  Even when I knew I was wrong, I couldn't accept it.  I had to defend myself with every fiber of my being.

The only thing that came out of that is, I ended up looking like a horse's ass.  And I knew it.  I fixated on criticism to the point of obsession.  Even a stranger calling me "fat bitch" from across the street thirty years ago still sits in my mind.  I remember what I was wearing, I remember what he was wearing; every thing. 

I think I'm the only person in the world who burst into tears during the scene in the movie Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts tells Richard Gere, "The bad stuff is easier to believe.  You ever notice that?"  To an insecurity addict like me, it was true.  Cruel comments far outweighed the kind ones because they were the only ones my memory kept.  That's what I was used to, what I'd conditioned my brain to do.  My mind threw out the compliments as untrue.  Unimportant.  Not needed for survival.  I had a vast library in my head of thousands of thoughtless, unkind, or vicious comments and actions, all categorized and stored for future suffering.  Dog slobber cupcakes in my own Easy Bake oven, and I drooled at the ringing of each bell.  Thus began the cycle of self-recrimination and silent litany of clever quips I should have said, all ending up in a messy stew of insecurity and humiliation that I slurped down daily.  God, I hated my own guts. 

But therein laid the answer.  I was reacting like Pavlov's dog.  I was conditioned by a hostile environment from early childhood.  All the catch phrases and popular abuse slang that colored my daily life helped to condition me to believe it.  Dad called me "an accidental cum squirt" and I reacted.  My conscious mind recognized the fact that he was a shithead for saying such a thing, but the subconscious mind believed it, felt apologetic about it, betrayed by it.  Even mammalian bonding came into the theory: baby mammals bond with the parent immediately, instinctively.  It's a survival mechanism: obey and live or disobey and die.  If my parents tell me I'm garbage, something in me believes them, far beyond mere conscious thought.  It's instinctive. 

I read a paper on torture once, a disturbing article on brainwashing.  The principle is simple: torture, then don't torture, then torture again.  The victim quickly becomes grateful for the cessation of pain, not for any real kindness.  The cessation of pain becomes the only pleasure the victim knows.  When their mind is broken thus, control becomes easy. 

That's how insecurity nibbles its way in.  I have an enormous library of crappy memory for it to draw on to control me.  Insecurity rings that little bell and I react to my past conditioning. 

I talk to lots of my brothers and sisters of circumstance.  In their past, they all reacted with the same drooling that I did for so long.  The same self-destructive decisions, the same downward spiraling relationships, the tried and true methods of rage and sex and violence, the bitter ranting and wrist-slashing fury that lives in all of us who've been brutalized. 

But we don't have to keep on that path.  We don't have to accept our original conditioning.  We can change it.  Sure, it's hard as hell, but nothing's as hard as what we've already faced, so fuck it.  Give it a try.  Forge a new bell; a beautiful little silver bell with a pure ring that stimulates us not toward self-hatred but self love.  Let the sound of kindness, giving, laughter and joy fill up some of those sewer-filled rooms in our hearts and minds, until one day, they outweigh the shit altogether.  It's possible.  Preachy sounding, sure, but true nonetheless.  I work on my own rooms every day.  I have a lovely little bell with a graceful handle and I ring the hell out of it, grinning like a dog myself.  It's incredible to look in the mirror and like what I see after so many decades of loathing.  It's miraculous to find myself happy, despite everything that's gone before.  All because of the new environment I've put myself in.  All because of a little conditioning.  Good luck to you all, as always, with your own beautiful recreating.  You can do it.  Ring the bell and begin. 

Love, R

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