Chapter 1: To Hell and Back

But I also believe in men like Brandon and Novak and Swope and Kerrigan; and all the men who stood up against the enemy, taking their beatings without whimper and their triumphs without boasting. The men who went and would go again to hell and back to preserve what our country thinks right and decent. (Audie Murphy, 1949; p. 273)

Early in life, I thought that the meaning of life was to be found in doing something heroic. When I was in high school, Audie Murphy became my hero after I read his book and saw the movie, To Hell and Back. In the book and movie, Audie Murphy recorded and re-enacted his experiences as a soldier in World War II. I dreamed of becoming a hero like him, facing death and destruction with courage, strength, and conviction. In a sense, that dream came true, but in a way I never would have imagined.

My battle began during the holiday season of 1971-72, when I became involved in the next-to-the-most terrifying experience of my life. Many influences and circumstances occurred together which confused and intensified a personal crisis that I was facing at the time. Eventually I could no longer sleep and my thoughts seemed to have a life of their own. I feared that I was “losing my mind” although I had no idea what that might mean. In any case, death seemed preferable. I hoped that my symptoms were the result of some serious physical ailment, but a trip to the hospital emergency room indicated otherwise. My fear intensified and with it new fear about how it would affect my children. Finally, I decided that the only thing to do was to face my fear. I talked to a psychiatrist who advised me to admit myself to a psychiatric hospital.

The three weeks I spent in a psychiatric hospital were alternately terrifying, inspiring, love-filled, awesome, meaningful, etc. I unlearned more and learned more at a faster rate than I’ve ever known before or since. At the very least, it was one of the most important and formative experiences of my life.

When I returned to the world, I was eager to talk about what I had learned, but I discovered that no one could understand what I had to say. Some gave advice or sympathy without attempting to listen. Some tried to listen but changed what I was saying by putting it into different words. Some just changed the subject. No one seemed able to accept that, although what I went through was terrifying at first, it was ultimately a positive experience. It was enlightening, integrating, and growth producing rather than negative and debilitating. Yet the only acceptable (to others) way for me to talk about what I had experienced was by calling it “mental illness”, or “nervous breakdown”, or some other disorder. That was not what it was, so I quit talking about it.

Even though I couldn’t talk about it, the strength and self-appreciation I learned from the experience served me well. I continued with my life and began to enjoy it. I had learned something so well that I didn’t need to have it validated by others. Nevertheless, it was disconcerting to know that others wrongfully judged me. I wanted to be able to communicate what I knew, but I found no words for it, even in my extensive readings. That is, I found no way to talk about it accurately, until I studied Skinner’s book, Verbal Behavior.

Skinner argued against the usefulness of traditional ways of talking about language. He preferred the term “verbal behavior” to “language” because it emphasizes that language is behavior rather than a “thing” to be used. In Skinner’s analysis, words are not tools for expressing thoughts, ideas, etc. Rather they are responses one makes to particular stimuli because of a particular history of reinforcement. His scientific account of verbal behavior provides an alternative to traditional explanations of language.

After reading Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior, I realized that, with respect to my private experience, other people (even professionals) cannot say what I’m experiencing  or have experienced.  No one else can accurately make a judgment as to the truth or falsity of what I say about it.

Traditional accounts of language maintain that words are things that have “meaning”, and therefore are true or false depending on whether the words one says agree with the “meaning” (that which is signified by something; sense, import). Society determines what “meaning” is signified by a particular word or phrase.

On the other hand, Skinner analyses language as verbal behavior, much of which is private behavior. Words are reinforced responses to particular stimuli. Therefore, “meaning” depends on the stimuli to which one is responding and to one’s history of reinforcement. The verbal community (society) reinforces particular responses to specific stimuli, but to the extent that either the stimuli or the verbal responses are private, “meaning” cannot be determined by the verbal community.

Much of the difficulty in analyzing “language” comes from the behavior called “thinking”.  For Skinner, ” ‘thinking’ is verbal behavior executed on such a small scale that it is not visible to others”; (Skinner, 1974, p. 30) and, therefore, reinforcing contingencies are difficult to maintain. The result is that much of this private verbal behavior (or thinking) is not tightly controlled by contingencies shared with the rest of the verbal community. Consequently, when such verbal behavior becomes overt (public), it may not be well understood by the verbal community. In such cases, because of traditional mentalistic explanations of language, the verbal community tries to impose a shared “meaning”. If that “meaning” is not relevant to the variables that evoked the verbal behavior for the individual, the “verbal behaver” (speaker, individual) is caught in the dilemma of whether to respond to the environment as s/he sees it, or to respond as the verbal community demands.

Skinner’s analysis provided me with a different way of talking and thinking about my life crisis experience. I could see that words by others about my private experience were based on their inadequate information. I was the only one who directly observed the stimuli to which I responded, and it was I who had reinforced and maintained my changing verbal repertoire during those days of intensified learning. On the other hand, my words were also inadequate. Often, I couldn’t even tell what stimuli I was responding to, and even when I could, an adequate verbal response was frequently not available to me. In other words, I couldn’t respond verbally in a fluent manner to myself or to others. Nevertheless, it was a place to start. It made it possible for me to maintain that my story is mine to tell. What follows is part of that story.

My journey to hell and back was an important turning point in my “story”. “Hell” had always been very significant in my life. I learned about Hell as a student in a Catholic elementary school. Hell was a place of eternal fire, pain, and suffering where we would go if we died with unforgiven sin on our souls. It was a frightening concept, and I think my older sisters rejected it quite early. However, the other side of Hell (Heaven, that is) kept me attached to the idea of eternal reward and punishment. Heaven was a place of eternal approval and happiness where we would go if we were good. Being “good” was a way I could get praise and attention from my mother, the nuns, the priests, etc. Unfortunately, it meant I had to hide all of the “bad” things about myself – like stealing, lying, impure thoughts, jealousy, etc. Selfishness, even, had to be denied.

I remember reading a Catholic magazine for children in which there was a monthly article called “Saintly children of our own times.” A particular one that affected me was entitled “The girl who always said yes to God.” God asked the girl for her puppy, she said “yes” and the puppy died. He asked her for other things and she gave them willingly. Eventually, God asked her for her mother. She said “yes, but take me instead if you will”, and then she died. After that, I feared that God was asking me for my mother, but I wasn’t willing to say “yes”; nor was I willing to offer myself in her place. I feared that I really wasn’t “good” at all. Sometimes I lay awake at night, terrified of dying with mortal sin on my soul. To combat the terror, I would repeat little prayers over and over to show my repentance and I would make promises to God about what I would do if he would only let me live.

Of course, my definition of Hell changed as I grew older. Eventually, I reasoned that Hell must be a condition of complete aloneness, justly imposed on persons who had willfully cut themselves off from goodness and from God. It still seemed horrible to me, however, and hard to believe that such a sentence could ever be given to someone that I loved. Nor could I take comfort in the thought that Hell would be a place for the people I hated. That thought was in contradiction to the greatest commandment to “Love one another” and to its counterpart that the greatest sin is hatred of one’s fellow man. To me, that meant that if I hated anyone enough to want that person in Hell, then I would deserve to go there too. Eventually, I decided that if I was good enough to not want anyone in Hell, God must be “more” good. On that basis, I rejected belief in the existence of a place of eternal suffering. Or, so I thought.

I worked hard at not hating anyone. I sought to forgive my mother, my father, my brothers and sisters, and anyone else who had ever hurt me. But finally I met my match. He was the janitor at a Catholic elementary school where I was teaching half days. For me, teaching there had been the most pleasant job I ever had. I loved my eighth grade students; I felt successful as a teacher; I felt a part of the community; and my youngest son was the baby Jesus in the Christmas play. Then, towards the end of the year, the janitor raised a big fuss about a room that wasn’t cleaned up enough after one of my class’s school projects. I thought the students were unjustly accused and punished, so I talked to the pastor on their behalf. Somehow the janitor and I became involved in a shouting match. Somehow, also, his point of view was the one that was accepted. I wasn’t asked back to teach the following year.

I probably would have hated him anyway, but the loss of my job came at a difficult time which made him even more despicable to me. When I had started teaching several years earlier I hadn’t needed a teaching certificate because teachers were scarce. By the time of this altercation, however, the situation had changed, and even the Catholic schools were not hiring uncertified teachers. I had all the necessary credits except “Directed Teaching”, and the College would have observed me on the job if I had had one. Because I didn’t have a job, I had to pay to spend a semester working under another teacher. To me, it seemed that the janitor had cost me a great deal.

The few years after that were very different than they would have been if I had kept my teaching job, and they were difficult in many ways. However, they were very interesting and wonderful in other ways. It was the beginning of the 70’s with all its changes and questioning of old values. I admired my younger sisters who were free and daring in ways I never would have dreamed of. I enjoyed talking with them and sharing their adventures vicariously. Besides that, my husband and I had interesting friends and family with whom we discussed new ways of looking at life and experimented with new ways of living. Particularly, we questioned our old religious beliefs and values. For me, religion was a particularly sensitive issue because I had always depended on the church as the basis of justice, but I felt it had let me down. Therefore I was eager for the opportunity to think things through on my own.

Nevertheless, elements of my religious upbringing remained, and at some point during that period of my life, I made a commitment to God to be as perfect as possible, to “be all that I could be.” Said in another way, I tried to surrender to the will of God as I never had been able or willing to do in the past. I hoped it would ease my confusion and put my doubts to rest, but such was not the case. I discovered that it is no easy matter to discern the will of God.

In Autumn of 1971, after completing my practice teaching and working for a year and a half as a Title 1 reading teacher, I got a job teaching Spanish in the district where my husband was teaching. It was just what I had dreamed of, but I felt somewhat insecure because I had been away from teaching Spanish and high school students for over six years. Nevertheless, I hoped that it was just what I needed to make all of my dreams come true.

Skinner’s method of classifying verbal behavior offers a unique way of understanding the confusion that can arise from thinking. He classifies verbal behavior differently than do traditional language theorists. Rather than considering differences between verbal units in terms of structure or use in a sentence, he classifies verbal responses according to the stimuli that evoke them at a particular point in time. Two classes of verbal response that are very important in any consideration of human behavior from a Skinnerian perspective are the tact and the mand.

Both the tact and the mand, like all verbal behavior, depend on a complex history of social reinforcement. Simply put, an individual learns to behave verbally in acceptable ways because acceptance in the social community is very rewarding. The reinforcement is generalized over many instances and eventually maintains a high level of verbal behavior even when no reinforcement is currently available. Because this generalized-conditioned-reinforcement affects all verbal behavior, it is not a factor in differentially classifying verbal behavior.

The important factor in distinguishing between the tact and the mand is the stimulus(i) that evokes the behavior at a particular point in time. Much of our verbal behavior consists of uttering a particular sound in the presence of a particular stimulus in a way that is agreed upon by the verbal community; for example, in an English-speaking environment, one says “table” in the presence of a table. Skinner classifies this type of verbal operant as a tact . Certainly it is very important in communicating accurately about the environment.

The mand, on the other hand, is not a response that distinguishes a particular environmental stimulus. Rather, it is a response to a motivative condition of the individual. In other words, it is a response to an individual’s state of deprivation or satiation, i.e., to what would be reinforcing to the individual at that particular point in time. Equally important, it is a response that has been reinforced in a specific way in the past rather than only by generalized reinforcement. For example, in an English-speaking community, one says “water” when one has been deprived of water for a sufficient amount of time, provided that the individual has received water for such behavior under similar conditions in the past.

In a very simplified way then, a tact says “what is” and a mand says “what is currently reinforcing” (or, “what one wants”). The distinction can be important in many different ways. For example, considering the validity of eye-witness accounts, if a person has been reinforced for seeing barns in particular situations, then the person may say a barn was present in a similar situation even when none was. In other words, sometimes what appears to be a tact is actually controlled by a motivative variable (what one wants or expects). Skinner classifies such behavior as an “impure tact”. “Impure tacting” can account for a great deal of inaccurate verbal behavior. Though simplified, these distinctions can be very useful in understanding the difficulties and confusion that arise when one tries to improve oneself or to make one’s dreams come true.

Many influences came together in me that Fall when I returned to teaching. I was experiencing conflict in several important aspects of my life. First of all, I no longer accepted dogmatically the religious and moral beliefs I had learned as I child; instead, I was looking for enlightenment in other philosophies, particularly Zen Buddhism. Besides that, although I had long before decided to commit myself to loving others as a basis for my spiritual and moral life, my attempts to do so had ended painfully and had disrupted my most important relationships. Also, although my ideal was to live simply and to contribute to the growth and empowerment of underprivileged people, I was teaching in the most affluent suburb in the area. Finally, as a teacher, the authoritarian approach with which I was taught and had previously taught others no longer make sense to me. Yet I also drew back from the inadequacies of a permissive approach.  In spite of the conflict, however, and although I no longer was sure of anything, I was still optimistic about the possibilities that existed.

My optimism faded, though as the year progressed. It was the first year of existence for the high school in which I was teaching, and Spanish text books had not even been ordered. I worked every night and weekend, planning and typing up lessons and tests. Most of the teachers had already worked in the system and relied on each other for support in adjusting to the new environment, but I felt left out as I struggled to be successful in my first year as a certified teacher. Besides that, I had continual pain in my head and jaws from sinus infection, stress, and/or dying teeth. Although, I had great students and enjoyed them most of the time, one day I couldn’t hold back the tears when the lesson didn’t go as I had planned. I handled it adequately, but I felt very disappointed and embarrassed. I began counting the days until Christmas vacation.

By the time vacation came, I was sick enough to go to the doctor and then to bed, taking antibiotics and antihistamines. However, there were exams to correct from all my classes as well as Christmas shopping to do and holiday plans with friends and extended families. I forced myself to keep going as much as possible. Somewhere in that time I started vomiting and stopped sleeping, but my doctor was out of town so I went to the emergency room. They found nothing wrong, but I believed that I was either dying or going through some “dark night of the soul”. My fear became more intense. Finally, a few days after Christmas when I was home with my family, I decided to face my fear for once and for all by allowing myself to die instead of fighting against it.

When I did that, I felt something very peculiar. I looked around and could still see everything that had been there before, but it seemed separated from me and no one seemed to be seeing me. I thought that perhaps in death one could still see the world but not vice versa, so I checked it out by talking to someone that was present. The person responded and I was momentarily reassured, but soon I felt dead again. I was terrified, but I didn’t tell anyone for fear they wouldn’t understand. Nevertheless, for the next few days I frequently had to check to see if I was still alive either by talking to someone or by checking my pulse. I was extremely tired, yet so wide awake that I couldn’t sleep.

Every moment became very intense and sometimes it was very beautiful. I walked in the snow, seeing it and feeling it on my skin as I never had before. I shopped at the supermarket, touching and smelling the fruits and vegetables as if for the first time. I ate a Snickers candy bar, enjoying it as the greatest taste treat of my life. I asked questions of people and received answers from them that stunned me with their wisdom and insight. But when I wasn’t walking, seeing, hearing, touching, etc., I feared that I didn’t really exist. Sleep remained out of the question.

My children’s school started the day before my school did, but I forgot about it until their school secretary called. That forgetfulness also stunned me. The next day I had to teach even though I had not corrected any of the exams. I drove to school with my head out the window, afraid that I would fall asleep at the wheel. When I got to school, I saw no familiar people and no familiar cars. Again I thought I must be dead, so I asked an unfamiliar person who was going into the school what school it was. She gave the correct answer and explained that she was a substitute teacher. At that point I decided that I couldn’t risk subjecting my students to whatever it was that was happening to me. I went to the principal’s office and again was stunned by the wisdom, kindness, and insight of another person. He drove me home while the assistant principal followed us with my car. Later that day, after making some calls, I made the decision to admit myself to a psychiatric hospital.

As my husband drove me to the hospital, the snow was falling in a beautiful way and the radio was playing “you’ve got to walk that lonesome valley, you’ve got to walk it by yourself, nobody else can walk it for you, you’ve got to walk it by yourself.” I realized that I was as much afraid of being insane as I was of being dead. But whatever it was, I wanted to face it and fight it the best I could.

The hospital was beautiful, and the people (both staff and patients) were kind and insightful. At first I was in the closed section of the hospital which was very peaceful as long as there was someone nearby. However, when no one else was around it was even more terrifying then outside. It was like my imagined Hell: I felt like a person locked in a few rooms with no one else existing in the world but my self. I reassured myself by taking my pulse and by looking out the window at cars or people passing by on the road. Sometimes the sound of the heating system seemed to match the sound of my breathing and heartbeat, and then I feared that the whole world might really be just a product of my imagination. For the first few days, I swung back and forth between intense involvement in my new environment and horrified awe at the abyss of the unknown that kept opening up before me.

At the point of my greatest terror, I was standing alone in the lounge looking out the window unable to detect any sign of another living human being. Finally, I heard with relief the sound of a pail on wheels being pulled down the hall. I knew there had to be someone with the pail so I rushed out to talk to whoever it was. There before me was the janitor from the school where I had taught, the only person in the world who I hated. My first thought was “It’s true. I am in Hell.” But almost immediately I realized that if there was any other human being with me, it couldn’t be hell. We began to talk and soon became friends. That was when Hell really ended for me, but I still had to learn what existed in its place.

Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior offers a very different approach to the classical advice: “know thyself”. He says “The question is not whether a man can know himself but what he knows when he does so.” (Skinner, 1971; p. 181). Skinner sees the important question as “what is inside the skin and how do we know about it?” (Skinner, 1974, p. 233). Many traditional thinkers are surprised to find that Skinner was interested in private behavior (or “what is inside the skin”), but they continue to misunderstand his way of analyzing it.

For Skinner, privacy (“a small part of the universe is enclosed within a human skin”) is a problem, not because it differs from what is publicly observable, but because it is inaccessible to others. Privacy may bring one closer to what one knows, but it interferes with the process by which one comes to know anything. When teaching one to talk about one’s private domain, the verbal community cannot use the same procedures it uses in teaching one to talk about the public domain. Regarding another’s private domain, the teacher cannot be sure of the stimuli to which the other is responding. Nevertheless, the teacher is necessary because only by the verbal community asking one about “what is inside the skin” does one become aware of it. However, because of the difficulty in teaching it, language about private behavior is by nature inaccurate and widely variable. “Knowing oneself” is a very difficult task.

As soon as I realized that I was still alive and present in the world I had been born into, my commitment changed. Rather than being concerned with facing death and/or insanity, I became concerned with facing life and whatever it had to offer me. I realized that I was not what I had believed myself to be, so I decided to take very seriously the advice of the ancient oracle to “know thyself”. Two things were clear to me about knowing myself. First, it involved seeing the world through my own eyes rather than through someone else’s eyes. Second, other people’s input was necessary for me to see clearly. At the time it seemed very paradoxical.

I remained in the closed section of the hospital for several days even though I went out for meals and to play volleyball, etc. I was intent on living one moment at a time and it didn’t seem important to get out of there. I spent a lot of time talking to staff members or patients about whatever seemed important at the time. They all were wonderful listeners, and I talked from my heart about my father (who had died in 1963), about my mother, about love relationships, about religion, etc. I felt much love for everyone around me.

Sometimes, of course, there was no one around, in which case, I had to deal by myself with whatever seemed important. The certainty from my past life was gone, and it seemed like I had to make every decision all over again. Frequently, it was very difficult, and I had to listen to the universe to get an answer; however, I got some very interesting answers that way. For example, once when I was listening desperately, the answer that came to me was “when in doubt, punt.” I interpreted that to mean, “if no good move seems possible, back off for awhile until the situation changes and/or you can look at it from a different perspective.” The answer has served me well ever since.

My life began to feel very real, present, and honest. I didn’t question the doctor about when I would get out; rather, I felt that life would take me where I should go. I was content to trust the universe and to reveal myself with complete honesty. My living felt more authentic and joyful than I had ever believed possible. I might have been happy to have stayed that way forever.

What I thought was enlightenment, however, was merely the set up for running into a stone wall. During one of my talking sessions, I became involved with a staff person in a complicated way. It meant a great deal to me and I was very grateful to that person. The next day, however, the person denied that anything had happened. I saw his fear that someone would find out, and I felt disappointed at his lack of trust in me; but the greatest disillusionment was his willingness to make me doubt myself, his willingness to risk my sense of reality. I knew then that I had to get out of there.

It was a strange way to learn the limits of honesty. I realized that if I told the truth about what happened, I wouldn’t be believed; rather, the “truth” would be considered evidence of my mental incompetence. Instead, I made sense of the incident by considering it my albatross that I would have to wear around my neck for the rest of my life — although, unlike the ancient mariner who had to tell his story, this would be one story I could never tell. From that point on, I knew that I could not completely trust others to do what was best for me; rather, I had to act in my own interests if I wanted to be sure that my interests were being considered. That night I told the doctor I wanted to leave the closed side of the hospital, and he immediately arranged for me to be transferred to the open area. Although I was impatient to get home, I agreed to stay until he discharged me. I continued to enjoy my stay in the hospital by keeping active with arts and crafts, physical exercise, outings, correcting tests, and even some reading. When I left the hospital I felt sad because it was a place where I had learned a great deal, but I felt relieved to escape from a power that could pass judgment on the truth or falsity of my experience or my statements without any evidence other than their professional opinion.

I returned to teaching the next day and was surprised to find that my students accepted the reasons for my absence without any fuss. I explained to them briefly where I had been and gave them a chance to ask questions, but they were less interested then I expected. The classroom got right back to normal.

With some friends and acquaintances, however, I was surprised for the opposite reason. Some people were obviously uncomfortable and overly solicitous. One friend commented “we all have our breaking points.” Another said “There’s a time to be weak.” Of course I understand that their “understanding” of what had happened to me was even less than my own. Nevertheless, it was difficult to contend with a social environment that could only talk about it in terms of weakness or illness. I knew, although I didn’t understand it well, that what I had done during those few weeks represented the most courageous and successful achievement of my life. It would be several years, however, before I studied Skinner and became able to “put what I was thinking into words” (i.e., to respond verbally to the events of that time in a satisfying way.)

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