Ask anyone with a young adult in their life, the age Britney was when she was put into a conservatorship. Tons of young people make such stupid, stupid choices. They quit jobs, leave college, spend all their money, do drugs, have babies, self-mutilate, get into relationships with the worst people, cheat on great partners, won’t call us for weeks, make promises they could never keep, threaten suicide, move to other countries, etc, etc, etc. They make lots of decisions with unforeseen consequences that might even be good decisions ultimately but that scare us and make us feel out of control. And what can we do about it? Typically very little.
Ask anyone with an addict in their lives. Millions of people go to ALA-NON and ACOA 12-step programs to help them learn how to “let go and let G-d”, set boundaries for self care and protection against their loved ones’ recklessness, and try to learn to love without being invested in the outcome of someone elses actions. And why do they spend hundred of hours in meetings and therapists’ offices? Because when someone is recklessly, even dangerously out of control, there is so little one can do to control their choices.
And yes, ask someone who has a loved one with an often chaotic mental health disorder like bi-polar, which is reportedly Britney’s diagnosis. At certain points in their depression they can barely function, and when seriously manic, can empty their bank accounts, crash and burn all their relationships, and create havoc all around them. Britney, like many folks with bi-polar disorder, is also magnificently creative and productive, passionate and alive.
The current discussion over how the travesty of justice of Britney’s conservatorship happened and has been maintained is best laid out in excruciating details in the recent New Yorker article. I have little of relevance to add to the discussion of the clear criminality of her particular conservatorship. But because like many I am a bit obsessed right now about her, her well being, and how this was allowed to happen and stay in place so long, I am reading through lots of the reporting. And the comments are filled with folks who basically say “but she is crazy and out of control, what else could they do”.
I have worked as a psychotherapist for almost 30 years. I have worked with addicts, and young people, and folks with bi-polar disorder. I have worked with partners and parents and loved ones of all of the above. I have seen lots of folks do dangerous reckless things with their lives and the lives of others. Here is what I have learned:
There are a handful of situations where we can have a modicum of control over the lives of another. As parents before our kids are 18, we have some legal rights, but they are seriously hard to enforce. When someone is actively suicidal or homicidal, certain family members, therapists and doctors can sometimes successfully involuntarily commit them to a mental health inpatient program for 72 hours. It is way better, of course, to get them to do it voluntarily, but if need be we can keep them safe for 3 days. If someone abuses or neglects their kids significantly enough, or is significantly compromised themselves by addiction, disability or mental health disorders, we can remove or limit custody. And yes, when someone is significantly compromised, by developmental delay, or dementia, and occasionally mental health disorders that leave someone unable to routinely care for themselves, we can seek conservatorship to protect them and their interests.
I get it. 13 years ago we all watched Britney lose her shit. She went bonkers. She was reckless, out of control, raging, probably a danger to herself. It appears to have been a very serious manic episode. She may or may not have already known she was bi-polar. We all watched the escalation. And for sure, there needed to be an intervention. I have watched many parents and partners have to live through days and weeks that looked as scary to anyone who loves someone who is wildly out of control. I have seen lots of folks hospitalize their loved one, voluntarily and involuntarily, I have seen people step in to protect the unhinged person’s children until they can get ahold of their mental health. Here is what I have not seen: “loved ones” attempting to gain conservatorship over someone’s life because they are reckless or poor decisions makers.
I also get that as a young and reckless person, with insane amounts of money and responsibilities, it might have been easy for Britney to get exploited in her industry. I am sure she put her faith in lots of people who didn’t have her best interests in mind. I am sure lots of folks took advantage of her. Do we actually imagine her father was better equipped to handle her fortune?
Think about some of your worst decisions, as a young person or even as a grown adult. How many folks advised you against it? How many folks knew it would turn out poorly? How many folks were pulling their hair out wishing you would choose differently?
Another question: How many time were controlling partners or parents or friends wrong about the thing you choose to do even though they railed against it? Do you think they should have been allowed to have control over your decisions just because they were scared or disagreed with or didn’t like your choices?
Most parents of young adult children know that they can seek some influence over their young persons’ behaviors. Hopefully they have a strong enough relationship to be able to use that relationship to influence their loved one. Certainly money can help as a leveraging tool or bribe. They might leverage other siblings or friends in their kid's life to put on pressure to choose a certain path. But ultimately, we all learn the horrible truth that we just don’t have control over another adult's actions.
Clearly Britney’s family decided there was too much to lose if they couldn’t control her. It seems clear that they didn’t have the kind of relationship that would allow them to have influence over her, and that her financial fortune was within their grasp if only she had never turned 18.
How they convinced lawyers and judges and therapists and psychiatrists to participate in this power and money grab will be revealed in the coming months. I suspect a lot of those involved will lose licenses, be sued and hopefully serve significant jail time. That none of the professionals she has been forced to see over these many years ever informed her of the perversity of her conservatorship is evidence they enjoyed the money and power inherent in having control over a famous multimillionaire more than they cared about justice or law or her well-being.