The Power of Unconditional Love

Listen, I don’t pretend to be a perfect practitioner of unconditional love. I wish I was. My loved ones would have had such better lives, had I had any notion of what unconditional love could do.

For example, on July 20 I bought a skinny, sick, fearful dog, for a ridiculous sum of money. I was in a terrifically needy state, having lost my beloved dog Aress to a freak accident. I looked into this pitiful sick doggie’s soft brown eyes, paid the sum, and took her home.

It was clear that she had never been in a real house before. OK, I don’t really live in a “real house,” since I make my home in a fancy van. But it is undeniably a home, and it was clear that she had never been in one. She lived in a kennel outdoors, was taken out to train, and put back in her kennel. From her lamentable condition, it was also clear that nobody had ever paid much attention to her.

In the six or so weeks that I’ve had her, she’s become a sleek, happy pup who loves almost everybody except people she deems untrustworthy. This is her job, and she does it well. She’s affectionate to the point of occasional annoyance, since there are things that must be done (according to me), like writing, doing chores, paying bills…but to Atina, these are annoyances to her, for damn the torpedoes, the play must go on!

An old buddy of mine stopped by to camp for a few days (hi, pal, in case you’re reading this!). I showed him the picture of Atina when I first got her. You could count her ribs and all her vertebrae, and the bones of her pelvis stood out like a sick cow’s. Her coat was dull and ratty: so much so that I had her tested for mange.

My friend asked me how I had managed to rehabilitate her into the sleek, happy girl she is today. I shrugged.

“Love,” he said quietly. I nodded, tears stinging.

Although he gets furious when I bring up the topic and vigorously denies it, my son is a very high functioning autistic. He learned to speak before the age of one, and before that, he developed his own version of sign language. By 19 months he could count to 19, and by three he could tell you the names of every dinosaur known to man, where they had been discovered, and what they did, their diets, their habitats, and what era they lived in. By four he had taught himself to read and do basic arithmetic via “Reader Rabbit” and “Math Blaster” on our desktop Mac.

On the other hand, he hated anything to do with other children, refused to participate in preschool, and whenever possible isolated himself in corners, absorbed in a book or playing with his plastic dinosaurs or action figures. At three, he was already seeing a child psychologist. We managed to get through private kindergarten in five-minute segments. If he cooperated and sat in the circle with the rest of the children for five minutes, he got to go to his corner and be alone for fifteen minutes. Later in the year he discovered the school office and became enamored with the laminating machine, so he became more motivated to sit for five minutes so that he could run to the office and laminate for fifteen.

First grade was a bust, as far as the teacher was concerned. We enrolled him in a progressive Quaker school: small class size, emphasis on art and music, compassionate teachers–what could be better? Nothing, I guess. Literally nothing. My son staidly refused to cooperate with anything whatsoever. His teacher, a caring and earnest young man, could not get him to do anything. He retreated to a corner and refused to come out. Somehow he managed to ace all the tests, though. But he would not come out of his corner, nor would he speak a word. The teacher called me on a weekly basis.

“He refuses to participate. What shall I do?”

I was busy, harried, frustrated and sleep deprived, so my stock answer was, “You’re his teacher. YOU find a way.”

This did not work.

Finally I had a brainstorm: “Make him the class scribe. Give him a tape recorder, and have him sit just outside the class circle and record everything. This way he’ll feel like he’s got an important job and is not simply one of the (muggles, but that word had not yet been coined by Rowling).”

It worked. We managed to make it through first grade without any further conflict.

In later years, I experienced what happened when I tried to force my son into anxiety-producing behaviors using negative consequences. He either withdrew, or else he simply sat down on the floor and crossed his arms, earning him the nickname “Sitting Bull”. When he got older, he became threatening and intimidating. I was not about to knuckle under, so I upped the ante, and so did he. Soon a full-blown war was in progress.

Now, I don’t believe in accepting bad behavior, not even from a “special” child. But there are ways, and then there are ways.

My moment of epiphany dawned upon reading Karen Pryor’s amazing book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. Pryor was the head porpoise and Killer Whale trainer at Sea World for many years. Now, you can’t make a large sea mammal do anything it doesn’t want to do. You have to make doing the desired behavior so attractive, that said mammal would rather do it than just swim around and play, like porpoises like to do. You have to make it fun to do what you want them to do.

Pryor’s book, as its title implies, carries this philosophy over to dog training. At the time her book was published, most dog training was based on negative reinforcement: You don’t do what I want, you get your neck jerked, you get yelled at, you might even get hit with a rolled-up newspaper for doing your business where you’re not supposed to.

Pryor applied what she had learned as a sea-mammal trainer to dog training. Thus, lucky dogs found out that doing the desired behavior resulted in treats and praise, while negative behaviors got them…nothing. Ignored. Exactly what a social mammal desperately does not want.

Of course, psychology students already knew this from getting rats to do things that humans had a hard time with, by simply having a tasty treat at the end of the maze. But applying methods that worked with “lower life forms” to humans? How insulting. Humans ought to just know that what they were doing was good or bad. Adam and Eve, right? Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, and stuff like that.

The Behaviorist School of Psychology, pioneered by B.F. Skinner, showed that positive behaviors rewarded with positive reinforcement produced more positive behaviors, while negative reinforcement inhibited negative behaviors. A third strategy was called “extinguishment.” You do what I want, you get left alone to do what you want. You don’t do what I want…nothing. The behavior “extinguishes,” for want of reaction. In many cases this worked better than negative consequences such as electric shocks. (N.B.: a rumor somehow began that Skinner experimented on his own child by placing her in a “sensory deprivation” cage. This is not true.)

Pryor capitalized on Skinner’s Behaviorist School of psychology and its “behavior shaping” model in her sea mammal training program. She then morphed it over to dog training…and concluded her book with a chapter on shaping the behavior of humans.

I can’t say that I ever mastered behavior shaping, either in dogs or in humans, but I have tried to incorporate it, when I remember.

What I’ve learned through the years, though, is to assimilate and practice the art of “Love the person, even if you hate the behavior.”

I have always loved my son, completely and passionately, even when I was dodging head-butts when bear-hugging him through an autistic melt-down, or once again leaving a cart full of groceries in the checkout line when all those people were just too much for him, or agonizing through the time he was in and out of countless outpatient and inpatient addiction programs as a teenager, or sitting up nights worrying when his stepmother threw him out and he lived in a drug house, on the street, in a homeless shelter, in a psychiatric ward zombied out on legal drugs.

Finally he got arrested, and this was my chance to save his life. I called the judge, whom I knew from my work with the court system (yes, this was taking advantage of my position), and begged him to remand my son to long-term inpatient care. The judge reprimanded me for calling him, but honored my request.

After a long period of searching, we found the perfect place. The students were held to a strict policy of personal accountability. Positive behaviors were rewarded with increased privileges; breaches of the rules resulted in suspension of free time, which was instead spent writing a paper examining the undesirable behavior, why the kid did it, what the internal meaning of the behavior was, and why this was counterproductive to the kid’s development as a productive, independent, successful individual. The student then presented the paper to a mentor, who helped process the ideas and helped the kid internalize them. There was still a consequence in terms of loss of privileges for a finite period, and a defined way to regain the lost privileges.

In this way the teens learned that self-determined productive behaviors resulted in more freedoms. In addition to these interventions, the kids had daily group therapy, thrice-weekly individual therapy, a staff mentor who was always available for processing issues, family therapy monthly, and many other interventions. It turned many lives around. It gave my son tools that he is still using, ten years later.

For me, it reinforced that the power of unconditional love moves mountains and saves lives.

Amen.

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16 Comments

  1. I loved this…but the take away here was that you figured how to get him into a long term treatment center. You a chance and understood what you needed and got it.

    This is the option that people with disorders that affect judgement and behavior and require intensive interventions should have as a matter of course.

    Well written….

    Reply
    • Thank you, Rob. The problem is that most people don’t have the resources to pay for either the incredibly expensive (time and money) process of finding the right school, or paying for the school itself. I had just lost my practice when a giant corporation ate up my hospital, had cashed out my retirement to pay for starting up my practice, been sued for half a million dollars for something I had absolutely nothing to do with, could not afford a lawyer, had to file bankruptcy, was so depressed I was catatonic and had to be hospitalized…my son’s father refused to help pay even for the family therapy that he and his wife took part in…my parents mortgaged their house to pay for the school, I threatened to sue the public school that had thrown him out instead of having him evaluated, and they settled for an amount that just covered the credit card debt that had paid for the process of finding him a school ($40,000 just for that)…who can afford that? If it hadn’t been for my parents, he would have been dead or in jail or probably both. The jails are stuffed with kids who could have been saved of our government gave a shit.

      Reply
      • Yes. Excellent care is expensive. Public schools often refuse to foot the bill. My family is privileged that we can afford my and my son’s care. Health care, mental health care, and an education suited to the individual (given disability or special needs) should NOT be a privilege, they are basic human rights.

        Reply
        • Absolutely. However, before LBJ closed the institutions, that’s where all the (now called disabled/special/special needs) kids went. I’m afraid that if public funds were available, they would only fund public institutions. The level of care we are privileged to access will still only be accessible to the privileged, or those who can sell their homes to pay, or somehow scrape up the money. Otherwise it will be some pittance that will only pay for some tired overworked uninterested….you know what I mean. I’ve just been reading a book about what used to happen to intellectually challenged children…OMG…

          Reply
          • We still have far to go. Some non-profits who get referrals from the school district and/or juvenile justice system do their best. I used to work for them. We cared. We were licensed professionals with grad school debt living in the San Francisco Bay Area for under $30K. Even in the early 90s, that was a pittance under our financial obligations.

            Reply
  2. Even though this is a story of brokenness, it is also an incredible success story. Your son is using the strategies even now, and that’s amazing. In spite of the ridiculous system, you were able to persevere and, on some level, win. I’m so glad you took the leap of calling the judge; I think too many people are worried about what others will think of them, rather than thinking of what is best for the child. Good for you.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Casey. It happened that I had worked as the Child Sexual Abuse evidentiary expert for County Prosecutor’s office in the county where my son resided, so I had testified in every court in the county and knew all the judges. He would not have taken my phone call otherwise! In Hebrew this is known as “protexia,” or using one’s inside influence. After we spoke, he said, “Remember, we never had this conversation.” I did not attend the court proceedings!

      Reply
  3. Thanks for sharing this/these intimate life moment (s)

    Reply
  4. Great story, Laura. Thank you for sharing it.

    Reply
  5. No words.

    You are an incredibly strong woman.

    Be blessed

    Reply
  6. Great read and full of great knowledge! Love is a powerful thing 💟💖

    Reply
    • Thank you, Ilex. I’ve had the privilege of counseling many parents whose children have seemingly been lost to mental illness +/- addiction, and the thing I tell them is, don’t let them tromp all over you but NEVER stop loving them. Your love will be what saves them. Tell them you love them at every opportunity. Unfortunately, we never know if this will be the last time we get that opportunity….

      Reply

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