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Thoughts on the tenacity of sick systems

Sick systems are solid. It's amazing. They act like they're on the verge of perpetual collapse, but they go on and on--two-thirds of the employees leave, the abuser's wife divorces him and two of the three kids go no-contact, and the system rolls on unaffected. As long as there's a single other person to support the founding member of the sick system, nothing ends and nothing changes.

(This is part of why many addicts have to hit bottom before they can get better: They have to go so low that they lose the last vestiges of their sick systems.)

The tenacity of sick systems is part of what makes them so hard to leave. You don't want to leave until you can save the other people who are caught with you. You don't want to leave until you can save the sick person who's running the system. You don't want to leave the system behind; you want to pull it down and leave something healthier in its place. But these things can't happen, so you stay until they can.

Which they can't.

So you stay.

The best and most succinct advice I've heard is, courtesy of igosm, is: "The best way to fight a sick system is to get out."

Following it is some of the hardest advice in the world, but ultimately it's best for everyone in the system. If you get out:
  • You're one less person supporting the sick system. That brings the system one person closer to decline; and while sick systems are preternaturally stable, each does have a natural limit of people it can churn through before it goes into a downward spiral.
  • You're an example to the people still trapped in the system. Some of them need to see that their lives will go on if they leave the system. Some of them need the reassurance that the system will go on without them. Either way, you're proof that escape is possible.
  • You're in a position to help the people who are trapped. You have the sanity and energy they don't; you can offer them safe space or tell them about opportunities that they're too tired to find for themselves. If the system is extreme, you're someone in the outside world who understands what it was like in the system and won't judge them for being trapped.
So leave. It's awesome out here. We have cookies.

Oh--and a couple of miscellaneous pieces of advice:

Do some reading on narcissistic abuse. This is abuse that hurts you by striking directly at your sense of self-worth. It leaves you with the feeling that your abuser has denied your personhood, even your existence--which sounds dry and technical, but what it means is that your abuser has told you you're not a person. Horrible, horrible pain, and it fills you with the need to prove to your abuser that they're wrong. Ever been in a fight where you hate the other person and don't give a shit what they think, but you have to hear them say you're right before you can let the matter drop? That's a taste of what it's like. Abusers give their victims a heavy dose of this kind of abuse because it keeps the victims bound to them, unwilling to let go until the abuser gives them validation. That's why abusive parents are so often successful at keeping their adult children glued to them, and why people who have been emotionally abused are so slow to heal.

That's evil enough, but it has a coda. If you get away from one abuser without getting validation, you may be drawn to another abuser to get validation-by-proxy. It's not conscious, but your unconscious is dumb. So read about emotional abuse not only to heal your own pain, but to train yourself to recognize when "This person makes me feel whole" means "This person feels like a source of the validation I need because they're like the last person who hurt me."

Don't recruit. Some people feel that they can't leave until they line up someone else to take their place in the system. It's really, really tempting, especially if you're not fully committed to leaving the sick system, but don't do it. You may feel that the problem lies in you, that someone who's more competent, more organized, more loving would be able to fix the system or wouldn't think the system was sick at all. You may care for the people who are left behind and want to be sure they won't be hurt by your leaving. You may even suspect that you're the sick person in the system. Please be kind to yourself and remember:

Sick systems are designed to make you think you're the sick one.

Sick systems are designed to make you think they're on the verge of collapse.

Sick systems are incredibly resilient under their masks of fragility. They will go on without you.

There are only two cures for a sick system: Remove the sick person from the system, or remove the system from the sick person. You don't have the power to remove the sick person unless you're a hiring manager. All you can do is reduce the number of people who get pulled into the sick system and hope the sick person recognizes their need for help before they spiral too far down.

So don't find a replacement for yourself before you walk away. Sick systems are perfectly able to do it for themselves. Better, even, because they know how to test for the qualities they need to keep someone stuck.

Besides, you were miserable in the system. Why inflict that on someone else?


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 23rd, 2010 01:06 am (UTC)
Thank you for posting this. Your insight continues to be very educational.
Jun. 23rd, 2010 05:44 am (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you're finding it useful. And happy birthday!
Jun. 23rd, 2010 03:54 am (UTC)
Kind of tempted to send this to my dad. c.c
Jun. 23rd, 2010 05:45 am (UTC)
Ack and agh. I'm sorry he's caught in this kind of bind.
Jun. 23rd, 2010 11:25 am (UTC)
I did always used to wonder how that place stayed in business...
Jun. 23rd, 2010 01:12 pm (UTC)
You are F-ing brilliant. I am so glad I was pointed at this blog.

I sent it onto a friend who was just getting ensnared in a sick system, and she was okay with the level it was at ... until the manager of the sick system pushed just that little bit harder.

It cost my friend a few hundred dollars, but I think she's counting it as educational cost.

You articulate things most of us try stumblingly to express - for that I thank you.
Jun. 23rd, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC)
I got out of a relationship of this type, and I know I'm better off for it. He replaced me, before I even fully left, with a woman who is freakishly similar to me, and marred her 9 months later. I in no way want to go back to that, but I do find myself wondering if he really fixed his issues after I left--did my leaving spur him on to do that? If his issues are fixed, why was he not able to do that with me? I don't think that he's any mentally healthier than he was and that he really just found himself a much younger woman who will be less able to see how nuts he is and married her before things went sour at the point they previously always tended to in his relationships. But I still have a lot of jealousy and confusion regarding other feelings I have about him and our relationship. How do you work through all that when you get out?
Jun. 26th, 2010 03:40 am (UTC)
Part of it is accepting that the only thing that might have triggered change was you leaving. If you hadn't left, nothing would have changed. After all, you'd have proved that as long as they said the right things or shaped up for a little while you'd stay. The odds are depressingly that you leaving didn't trigger a significant change, either.

The important thing to remember is that if they really did change when you left, there is *no way* you could have possibly benefited from it. If you'd stayed, there would be no change. If there was change, it was dependent on you leaving. It's not a Venn diagram - there is no overlap between you staying and change happening. You do know this, but the lingering guilt that if you'd only tried a little harder then maybe it would have finally happened is *killer.* You tried everything you had available, and when nothing else worked you changed the only thing you could. You left and broke the cycle.

It is one of the most painful things I have ever done, because it is the death of hope. It forces you to give up the dream of the way things were supposed to be, how they were when things were good, how the two of you could overcome everything together. Acknowledging that you never really had the wonderful relationship you thought you had, and that having it with this person is impossible is so heartbreaking that most people never get there.

The second-guessing is totally normal, but your realization that you had to leave or stay in that cycle forever was absolutely correct.
Jun. 24th, 2010 08:26 pm (UTC)
Still thinking about this ...

Some of us simply have a natural desire to be kind and helpful - which, as pointed out in the previous post, are virtues that can ensnare us in the sick system.

The difference is that offering help in a healthy system, if it is accepted, will be appreciated.

One person has a death in the family and spreads the grieving as far as s/he can, enlisting new participants wherever possible, drawing in as many people as possible to the pity party, even costing them money and time. "Oh godz whatever will I do... I need you to tell me what to do, I need you to do it for me while I melt down and call six more friends to panic..."

Another person has a death in the family, draws on existing support. S/he will thank peripheral support and either accept some tangible help gratefully, or gracefully declines. "Thank you for the pot roast, that was kind and thoughtful,"

I guess I am trying to say are virtues should bot be guarded like Fort Knox, but thoughtfully and appropriately shared in order to avoid sick systems.

(Deleted comment)
Jun. 25th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
Never forget, also, that the manager of the sick system will draft an 'underling' into intense and prolonged physical labor just to keep them too tired to keep going and looking for a way out. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of hard work to walk away.
Jul. 26th, 2010 06:53 am (UTC)
Er, I'd like you to know that I'm finally linking this set of articles to a friend of mine who's in a fucked up situation at the moment. I hope they help, and thank you again for writing them in the first place.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 10th, 2010 09:45 pm (UTC)
One person, total? No, although poverty, mental illness, and other problems can mesh together to form a set of life circumstances that sure feels like it.

OTOH, if you mean "Can one person be the entire guiding force behind a sick system?" then yes, definitely. One person has immense power in relationships, far more than we tend to credit lone people with. And if you get to a sick system early enough, it's sometimes possible to cancel a sick system by shoving out the person responsible for making it sick.
Sep. 17th, 2010 03:06 am (UTC)
I followed a link to these posts from browngirl and I'd like to thank you for putting all this down. It's actually a huge relief that there are a number of other people who have been caught in these "sick systems", both professionally and, as in my case, in relationships. Getting out of my "sick system" was the best thing that ever happened to me--it honestly saved my life after I hit that rock bottom. Thank you for putting this out there. Really, thank you.
Oct. 11th, 2010 03:44 am (UTC)
Thank you.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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