Saturday, April 17, 2021

9. Hurt People Hurt People

I received my first real death threat on July 16, 2014. I was taping a segment with Joel Rose of NPR that day following the World Health Organization’s endorsement of PrEP as a preferred strategy to prevent HIV.  It was a dream come true: Guy moves to New York from California, works his ass off, gets briefly famous, receives an invitation to do an interview at NPR in Times Square on a beautiful summer day.  I left the studio, turned on my Samsung Android only to see notifications from several friends alerting me that a person in the Act-Up New York Facebook group had announced his intention to stab me to death and “march his head on a stick up sixth avenue.”  For the record, I would have preferred being marched up ninth avenue,  but it seemed we were long past the point of concessions or negotiations.

This was before I had a smartphone, and I did not know back then how to take a screen shot on a Samsung.  But I knew how to take one on my office laptop.  So I raced down to my office on 26th street from 42nd to capture the threat and report it to the police.  By the time I got to the Flatiron the post had been deleted.  I tried contacting Facebook to get a copy of the evidence, but, good luck with that.  The words were gone, the person blocked me, and well, I’m still alive today.  

Why would someone be so enraged as to make a viable threat against me in public?  Fortunately, I had a pretty solid clinical background in working with violent offenders, trauma survivors, and impulsive rage from people in a chemically imbalanced state.  What it ultimately comes down to is this: Hurt people hurt people.  Wounded people wound people.  If we don’t actively tend to the emotional scarring in life then we will re-enact pain and violence against others.  If we don't have a framework for handling rejection then we will lash out at others.  But where in the world are we ever taught or encouraged how to do this? 

Several months ago I watched a profound video on this subject from an unexpected source:  actor Will Smith.  As he gathered the cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air for a reunion, he came to an understanding of how much he had harmed his former cast mate Janet Hubert (“Aunt Viv”).  So he set up a therapeutic reckoning of sorts so he could understand her pain as well as his own reactions.  In this process he discussed the trauma of growing up in his own turbulent family home, learning that his physical and emotional safety rested in making other adults laugh. As long as his father was laughing, he didn’t hit his mother.  As long as adults laughed around him, he felt calm and in control.  But if someone didn’t like him, or didn't laugh with him, that for him was the danger zone, and called for his “dragon” to come out. When Janet Hubert did not laugh along with his jokes, nor appreciate his disruptions on set, he became more and more enraged. These tensions ultimately lead to her being dismissed from the show, being called a “difficult” Black actress by Will Smith in the press, thereby sinking her ability to find sustainable work in entertainment for most of the next thirty years.  In his desperate need for safety, a woman's career was destroyed. 

Watching these discussions and revelations unfold reminded me of the guy who wanted to put my head on a stick.  The only thing I knew about him then, and still know about him now, is that he is a long-term survivor living with HIV.  What had he been through to get to the point of making a murder threat?  What part of his “dragon” felt necessary to invoke in order to feel safe?  What part of me talking about PrEP and HIV prevention was so threatening?  

The trauma experienced during the early days of the AIDS crisis cannot not be adequately described with words.  In the beginning it was called Gay Related Immune Deficiency (or “GRID”).  So many gay men watched their entire friends and community cruelly and painfully get sick and die excruciating deaths. They watched their minds disintegrate into dementia, their bodies decompensate to skin and bones, the agency of their basic bodily functions disappear, all within the framework of political and medical stigma and shame.  Gay men in general were still commonly regarded as deviants, perverts, and child molesters at this point.  GRID added the additional layer of dealing with disgust, fear, discrimination, and violence.  

I wasn’t around for this part of the pandemic, I was a pre-teen.  I have been told about these traumatic experiences by survivors (including the nurses and doctors) who were helpless to do anything to stop the pain and dying.  People lost their partners, their friends, their colleagues, their co-workers, their neighbors, all the while coping with an unknown virus that had no clear medical boundaries for transmission or prevention, a government that refused to address the problem, and a society that was continuing to stigmatizing the victims.   Once medical facts were known it became clear that this virus was transmitted through sexual semen exchange, meaning many died as a result of contracting GRID during anal sex.  An experience sought after for pleasure and connection turned out to be the source of great agony and loss.  

Those who survived the worst of the GRID/AIDS crisis came through with either:  (1) A deepened sense of compassion and respect for human life;  or —  (2) A deepened sense of victimhood and rage against others for not protecting them.   Yesterday I discussed twelve people who represent the former.  But so many felt abandoned during these years, emotionally out in the cold to fend for themselves, like no one gave a damn about them except those who died.  They came through the pandemic basically saying, “If no one is going to show me compassion and kindness, then why should I be compassionate or kind to anyone else? The world is horrible so I will be horrible in it.” 

It wasn’t until 1996 that effective drug treatments began to prevent horrific deaths from AIDS.  The 'cocktail' regimen saved lives, but it didn't change the emotional scarring that had largely gone ignored by medical and mental health systems.  That grief could not be undone, the overwhelming devastation and persistent loss did not disappear even once the dying slowed.   I understood how unaddressed trauma could manifest itself into aggressive rage.  I had been on the receiving end of this more than once while I was doing outreach and education for HIV vaccine research from 2009-2013.  

PrEP became the first HIV prevention strategy to be approved by the FDA on July 16, 2012 (yes,  condoms were never FDA approved for HIV prevention).   PrEP is a daily pill that prevents someone's likelihood of acquiring HIV by more than 99%, whether condoms are used or not.  The idea of discussing an HIV prevention strategy that enabled sexual freedom was embraced by many.   But for those who had lost all their loved ones, for those who traumatically equated condomless sex with death and devastation, this was not a welcomed advancement.  Toward the end of 2013 onward there was a steady stream of media press about PrEP and the potential role it played in Ending The Epidemic.  I was often featured in these news stories, given I was more than willing to enthusiastically share the fact that I was using PrEP to have condomless anal sex with multiple partners whose HIV status I did not know nor care about.  For some of these survivors my story felt like an emotional hammer to the head, one they wish to condemn and shut down immediately.  

In many ways my clinical background had given me a framework for understanding the social context for individual aggression.  During most of the early 2000s I worked in service agencies that provided court-required treatment for people on probation who had committed violent offenses, people who were complying with Child Protective Service regulations, and/or dealing with beating a case for illicit drug possession.  It was during this work that I was reminded of how the term “Fundamental Attribution Error” operates in the criminal justice system.  This basically means that individuals, especially people of color, are typically held personally accountable for their legal offenses in a court of law which seeks to individually “punish” or “correct” their wrong behavior.  At the same time the legal system rarely ever examines the systems that create and sustain such behavior over decades and generations.  If you have certain areas where drug dealing is the only way to financially thrive, then you will create and perpetuate a system of drug dealing.  If societal structures make it nearly impossible for someone to find gainful employment and education after serving their legal sentences, then we will create more incentives for breaking the law and then blame the individual when they are back in court.  All of this enables a viscious cycle of recidivism that leads to more and more individuals being prosecuted for more and more crimes. 

It was during this era that I began looking toward spiritual principles and philosophies as to who I wanted to be and how I wish to react when I'm on the receiving end of verbal attack and aggression. Early in my career getting screamed at by a client would trigger my fight-or-flight response, with more flight than fight, meaning I would freeze up and mentally zone out in in the face of overwhelming rage.  It was clear that that was not going to be a useful tool in agency settings, so I began to learn other ways to stay present and available while I was a target for frustration and projection.  

There's a concept that runs throughout A Course In Miracles that suggests attack is a cry for help.  This deeply resonated with me because I know as a child the only time I would attack or act out was when I was feeling scared, unloved, pushed beyond my limits of coping.  Just like a dog bites when they are overwhelmed, so do humans who perceive a lack of love and compassion.  And boy, do we live in a world that sustains a perception of lack of love and compassion.  When you've been systemically traumatized, abandoned, kicked down, mistreated, you will likely react accordingly.  If you are involuntarily celebrate (or "incel"), and perceive a scarcity of physical affection then you will often react with aggressive rage.  Once I could breathe that in, once I could accept that, once my synapses could grasp that, then I could handle being on the receiving end of it.  

I do not excuse nor legitimize violent threats against myself nor anyone else.  But by the time I was the target of the death threat in 2014 I had come to understand the social context within which violence emerges.  If someone is perpetually denied any semblance of human decency, respect, or coping with significant trauma, then they may perceive violence as their only option.  If someone living with HIV has been continuously abused, dismissed, and literally left for dead by their own government (i.e, the Reagan administration), they may see physical acting out as their only viable course of action.  I’m not saying that’s hunky dory on my end, but I do think that solely focusing on individual behavior is a remedial solution.  If we don’t ever seek to change the systems that create and perpetuate human suffering, then we are constantly going to live in a state of violent reactions followed by, “how the hell did that happen?”

Hurt people hurt people.  Threatened people threaten people.  You can’t offer someone the empathy or caring that you haven’t been given yourself.  Conversely, I’ve never seen a person who is living a life of abundant love and purpose actively seek out ways to exploit or diminish others.  People who feel sustainable joy, deeper meaning, and rewarding human connections don’t seem inclined to make violent threats, send cruel tweets, or use their voice to harm or shame others.  

As I turn fifty I am interested in fortifying this message deeper in my Work.  We are living in a nation of people hurting people.  I see more hate crimes, police violence, and social media wars than ever before.  We are literally elevating the phrase "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" to the next level.  I don't want to be blind or toothless.  I want to live in a democracy that prioritizes human rights, maintains social justice, corrects systemic errors, repairs historical travesties, and creates communities where love, family, and friendship, can flourish.  

That may seem lofty and idealistic and I don't know if I'm going to see these changes in my lifetime.  But I do know that I can be that change today, you can be that change today, and together we can direct energy and possibility around loving people loving people.  

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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