Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.
A trickster is defined as a “deceiver, cheater, or fraud.” However, in mythology, the trickster is studied up close in folklore and religion. Going beyond the simple cheater definition, a trickster is a character in a story - exhibiting great cunning and possessing secret knowledge - who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior. As such, the trickster can be thought of as an archetypal character, appearing in many myths across various cultures through lore and tradition. The trickster is a boundary-crosser, disrupts normal life typically for our hero in the story (or innocent bystander) and thus violates principles of social and natural order.
In this way, the trickster is merely a distraction, unmoved by conventional goals or achievements as their one true driving force is cunning, stealing or simply causing mischief. In Greek mythology, Hermes, god of many trades and skills, and a trickster no doubt, causes turmoil for many of those immortal gods and goddesses at Zeus’ beck and call.
In modern times, the trickster has dawned a new cloak and marauds the internet as a troll. We’ve all encountered internet trolls online -- the nameless and faceless who hide behind anonymity to spout often hateful and destructive words and ideas. As such, the modern trickster hides in the shadows, a specter of the night.
Still, there are tricksters who hide in plain sight and defraud people of their money. The story of Bernie Madoff - aptly turned into an HBO movie called “The Wizard of Lies” - warns of powerful and bombastic tricksters. Recently in Los Angeles, Jonathan Schwartz, a former trusted partner at GSO, a business management firm in LA county, stole more than $4.8 million from Alanis Morissette, among others. This trickster got caught -- he was ordered to pay $8.2 million in restitution and may face 4 to 6 years in prison, according to the LA Times.
The infamous Grandparent Scam is another one that older adults fall prey to. In a CBS News investigation, an admitted con artist revealed how a scam targets and steals money from grandparents. The scam begins with something most grandparents don't get enough of -- a phone call from a grandchild. Instantly, the grandparent is hooked with the emotional cue of a grandchild calling for help. “I’m in a little bit of trouble,” the imposter claiming to be your grandchild says. “If I tell you what happened, just keep it between us, I’m scared.” That line - “keep it between us” - is the lynchpin because then the grandparent keeps the help of a spouse, loved one, or law enforcement at bay. And so the emotionally rattled grandparent continues to listen. “I got into an accident, and I was arrested for a DUI,” the grandchild’s voice quivers over the phone, “things got out of control, and I need you to send me money.”
So how many people fall for it? "One out of 50 maybe," reports the former scammer to CBS News. He goes on to say that "we target people over the age of 65, mainly, because they're more gullible. [Grandparents] are at home. They're more accessible. Once you get them emotionally involved, then they'll do anything for you, basically." And intellect plays almost no role in who the scammers target and the responses they get from folks who are typically grandparents or aging. "We've had doctors and lawyers fall for this. It doesn't matter what your educational level is because it triggers something emotional, it causes you to act,” says Doug Shadel of AARP.
Wow. Isn’t that the same thing that happens with families whose loved ones experience substance abuse, mental health issues and even chronic pain syndrome? Family members respond to the emotional pleas for help, bypass all evidence that points to the truth, and fall into the trickster’s hands. Such is often the case when we let our emotions run wild. Our confabulations (the stories or narratives that play in our head) take over and it becomes difficult to thoughtfully sort the true information from the untrue.
In many respects, the way families hide their heads in a sea of denial as their loved ones who are experiencing a substance abuse, chronic pain or mental health crisis spin wild stories are every bit as gullible and emotionally vulnerable as the grandparent who falls prey to a scam. Or it’s the person who unwittingly invested their life savings in a Ponzi scheme. And yet another who hired a money manager who appeared respected, smart and professional. Each one was duped by the emotional triggers in the mind and the slight of hand of a talented trickster.
Recently, I had the privilege of creating a presentation which I titled The Emperor's New Clothes in which I spoke about how what we may first see and observe may not be the truth rather in many respects our minds are tricked into believing the false story. Like the fable of the emperor, truth, reality and facts are sidelined by a bubble of delusions for which it can sometimes be difficult to pop.
Our job as behavioral health care specialists - in my experience as a clinician and an interventionist - is to see past the myth and help others let go of the trickster. Here are a few examples of fictionalized tricksters you may see in the behavioral health care field:
- President of a Company Trickster -- A Family calls worried about their father. He is the President of a prestigious company and has a terrible substance abuse problem. Everyone knows about the problem but pretends everything is ok (i.e. The Emperor’s New Clothes situation) as he is held in high esteem by the community and they do not want to embarrass him. What the family does not see is that the local liquor store owner, the local bartender, his doctor, his friends, etc. know he is not okay. They are afraid to act. Their mind plays tricks on them.
- Chronic Pain Syndrome Trickster -- A 48-year-old woman calls about herself. She experiences chronic pain. She has had multiple surgeries resulting from a car accident, hurt her neck and back and had a fusion. She has been on Vicodin and oxycodone (both pain killers) for more than 7 years and is in chronic pain. She also takes Cymbalta (an antidepressant) and Soma (a muscle relaxer). Once a talented woman, she is on disability, sits at home all day ruminating and researching ways to have the latest medical procedure performed. The orthopedic surgeon recently said he has done all he can do for her and she is still insistent on getting an appointment with a neurologist, even have another MRI. She says she wants to stop. The trick is how we as behavioral health care professionals reach her in time before she tricks herself into believing another medical procedure, another pill will be the answer. The answer is for her to get some real help-to enter her into a pain recovery treatment program. And the odds are tightly held against this as her family members feel great empathy for her and her struggle with pain, and struggle with accepting help as well as their loved one is “on doctor’s orders.” The Trick is to open the window of health and healing for this woman and her family and for them to believe there is possibility and hope
- The Telephone Trickster -- When parents call about their teenage or even 34-year-old son or daughter their hearts are hurting. They are scared and worried about where they are and what they are doing. Sometimes they report a history of substance abuse, mental health disorders, running with law enforcement, multiple treatment episodes, etc. The one thing these parents cling to is the telephone, the trickster in this case. Parents believe the phone is the lifeline to their loved one, their GPS. They are tricked into believing the phone will help save their child while in truth it is the direct dial to their drug dealer and in truth there are multiple ways to reach their adult child.
In all these instances, families believe everything that they are taking the right course of action. As licensed professionals, we must be empathic and vigilant. We must break into the honeycomb of denial with compassion and love, expose the trickster in all its forms and invite in courage, hope and healing with the tools and proven strategies available to us.
To learn more about Louise Stanger and her interventions and other resources, visit her website.