I’ve been in the habit of surrounding myself with people who have this drive– this knack for defying systems and norms that have placed restrictions and limitations on their being. I find these folks both in my personal and professional circles and I can’t think of a better habit to get caught up in.
The lessons I learn and the courage I experience from these revolutionary folks who face odds that are stacked to topple them astound and inspire me.
In my research, I meet domestic violence survivors daily who refuse to settle for the standard of worth that their abusers and society place on them.
In therapy, gender non-binary people who defy the system by being visible despite a world that seeks and attempts to erase them.
In my personal relationships, women who push back on beauty norms that claim that to be lovable you must be this; look like that; attain a heteronormative kind of love.
Brothers and sisters of color digging in and fighting a system that denies them basic human rights of equality and dignity.
This is a bold kind of living. To boldly live one must have an imagination that reaches beyond the bounds that are placed on one’s existence. Some of us have others show us the way of boldness and some of us have to carve out a bold space for ourselves and sometimes it’s a combination of both. This is all grounded in an imagination of possibilities and opportunities– even when met with closed doors.
I’ve been reading Trevor Noah’s book and the following segment resonated with me. In one of the most brutal systems in the world, apartheid, Noah describes living beyond the limitations of the system– living beyond the limitations people placed on him… living beyond how people saw him– living beyond what they said he could do and who he could be…
“My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid– not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered. We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited… Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that my mother started her little project, me, at a time when she could not have known that apartheid would end. There was no reason to think it would end; it had seen generations come and go.. People thought my mom was crazy… So many black people internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own… Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom, “Why do all this? Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the ghetto?” “Because, ” she would say, “even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough”.
Bold living is not just having an expansive imagination, but it is the courage to allow oneself to live with an imagination.
And to live boldly with an imagination– an imagination that reaches beyond and defies cultural and systemic limitations and oppression is hard ass work. It is a deconstructive to reconstructive kind of all encompassing work that can leave us exhausted, disoriented, confused and lonely.
And because this an all encompassing kind of work it usually requires us to remember some things regarding the process and our self-care.
When you are exhausted:
Yup– you’re going to get exhausted, weary, worn-down and tired. It is not because you are flawed or incapable or weak. You get exhausted because 1) this is hard work. It takes a great deal of emotional, mental and physical energy to navigate the world while essentially liberating yourself from stereotypes and norms that are in place to force you to conform. And 2) you are a human with a finite amount of energy and capacity. Everyone eventually drains that well… It’s part of our human cycle and as we grow in self-awareness and insight we can do more to preserve that well or reserve before it runs bare.
But we have to be aware… we have to be listening to our bodies and our hearts and respond to our exhaustion with kindness, grace and compassion.
I think we all can do a better job of establishing a foundation of self-care. What’s your eating look like? Are you feeling nourished? How are you sleeping? Do you have a sleep routine that supports what you’ll need from one day to the next? What’s play look like for you? What activities energize you? Who are your people? I’m talking about the people where you find mutuality, equality, respect and reciprocity.
When you hit that point where you may be depleted it is okay to unplug. It’s okay to sleep. It’s okay to turn the off or pause button on and take a retreat for yourself.
When you are confused/disoriented:
When you defy norms, you essentially are acknowledging your authentic self while also building yourself from scratch outside of the system. The thing is there are no blueprints to follow and show how one should go about the building process. There may be some folks, some ancestors that have modeled this kind of work that have gone before us… I think of people like Rosa Parks or James Baldwin or bell hooks or Ellen DeGeneres or George Takaki. These folks, among others, provide a picture of resistence and reclamation, which we can draw from. Even still, a blueprint is not provided and so in the process one may feel confused, lose sight of the big picture and feel lost.
Usually when we are confused we try to equilibrize– we try to get balance and typically while trying to gain balance we look outside ourselves to calibrate. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. What becomes problematic is when we compare ourselves to others, because typically we are not able to objectively compare and contrast our situation to someone else in this state.
When one is confused it is important to ground oneself. Grounding can mean incorporating objective voices in our experience. It can also mean quieting onself and taking a break from all the noise. For some, this can mean meditation or taking a walk in nature or turning off one’s phone and internet accessibility or listening to music. It looks different for all of us. Ultimately, grounding allows us to get back in touch with ourselves– helps us to see ourselves and our path again.
When you experience loneliness:
This can be lonely work. There are moments, days and weeks that feel isolating and lonely. Our stories and situations are unique and diverse from others. Sometimes we feel misunderstood or alone in our unique process– left to wonder does anyone understand? I just want to say this experience is legit. Be incredibly tender with yourself in these moments. These moments pass. Sometimes we are completely surprised by how someone does show understanding or compassion to our circumstance. We also surprise ourselves in these moments because we can see our own personal strength and the incredible ways we are able to show up for ourselves. This is resiliency and it’s a beautiful and wonderful thing.
Additionally, find the humor in it all. Wherever you find a space to laugh– take it! Today I met with my 83 year old mentor who has seen it all and who has carved her own path despite being raised in a time when women were programmed to live in a particularly restrictive way… She could not emphasize enough how we need to be able to laugh; to laugh at ourselves; to laugh at our humanity– ya know the places where we stumble about and yet, we are trying so hard– these can be kind and endearing moments to chuckle over and it can lighten our load– if only for a moment may we have lightness.
Life seems to be serving up the same lessons that I seem to either forget or think I will eventually master. In this week’s servings there was nothing over the top out of the ordinary, but none-the-less the challenges of parenting and adulting and relationshiping drudged up old responses that I thought I had out grew. Just like an old, familiar space my responses were filled with anxiety and worry and a nagging voice that I-am-just-not-doing-enough and that I-will-never-be-enough.
These are the ghosts of my past who somehow fill my present and urge me to problem solve a future that still has yet to become.
And so I do the old patterns that I’ve learned do not serve me well and this is that I try to control for the circumstances in which I have no control. Usually how this looks is I try to out do myself– be better– be perfect– be a perfect mom– present a competent, well-put-together adult self for co-workers, be the best listener to my friends, have the patience of a saint for my children, stave off exhaustion or weariness, appear brave, commit to being a giver and resist being a receiver…
I know this is usually a fruitless, soul draining endeavor for me. I know that the more I live in my head to be perfect and to present perfection the less I live authentically. Authentic for me is to be in the moment– open to whatever life offers so that I can learn and grow. Authentic also means that I am where I am… I’m giving what I have… I’m receiving what I can hold and I’m listening in the here and now.
And I’ve learned in the four decades of my life that the efforts to control exhaust me and wear me thin yet, I found myself doing this by default– just easing into this old pattern without giving it a second thought. In my 20’s and 30’s this likely would go on for a long time, but thanks-be to the development of skills like mindfulness and self-awareness I was able to eventually notice that this pattern had snuck back up. I was able to evaluate myself and make some different decisions regarding the anxiety and stress I was bearing and the response I wanted to extend to myself.
When I got down to it I realized that the anxiety I was holding was about an uncertain future that I have very little to no control over. I mean to get really honest with myself I had to realize that I cannot predict or control what is to come and that scares the shit out of me.
I can pour every ounce of parenting energy and wisdom into my children, but what they do with that… how they actualize is not in my control.
I can love with every ounce of love my heart and body can muster and I can’t control the outcome and the return of love or of loss or of illness or of death. (Loving my mother meant taking care of her body and her health toward the fruit of her returning to complete health– I could not control for how her illness was going to compromise her and ultimately take her)
I can make all the ‘smart’, future forward career investment decisions to ensure a future of bright opportunities and financial security, but I can’t guarantee that these opportunities will be extended toward me.
And this lesson presented to me what it always presents to me– that what I have is right now. I have today.
A few years ago, I did some crazy stuff. I left everything behind: a marriage, a career, a community, a belief system– on the notion that leaving the toxic aspects of my life would lead to more health and growth. I had a certain kind of optimism or hope about that decision.
In terms of my mental and emotional health I can say that I’ve seen the fruits of that decision produce the capacity for me to think and to breathe and to live in peace. It’s in part, why I can presently be more mindful, but in terms of what the future holds I have no certainties and I think that some days I’m still waiting and watching with bated breath– I’m peering into the future, anxieties rising, lungs full– wanting, longing to control the outcomes. And then life (sometimes in gentle ways and sometimes in not so gentle ways) brings me right back to where I am and says stay.right.here. Don’t get ahead of yourself. You have today. You have this moment. Stay right here and listen– don’t lose this moment. Don’t let it slip away. Bask in it. Let the sun shine on your face and breathe, because this is what you have and this is what you can be certain of– this- right- here.
A few weeks ago I had an individual comment to the previous post entitled: Supporting a Partner who has Experienced Trauma. This individual’s comments addressed an important issue that occurs when family members are not supportive to their partners because they: do not have a desire to do so or they are insensitive to the needs of loved ones traumatized or they do not see the unique needs of those traumatized to be legitimate or warranting attention. Some may have difficulty facing the reality that there are folks like this that do exist– well they do and I think that deserves attention, especially as we as a larger community figure out ways of being supportive and compassionate to people who face challenges like these in their family of origin.
Let me start by saying that the first post on this subject was addressed to those partners and family members who do desire to support their loved ones, but either do not know where to start or who want effective/compassionate/appropriate communication strategies to communicate their support. I have met countless families who are well-intentioned and desire healing and wholeness for their suffering family member but do not have the tools or resources. That said, as a member of the therapeutic community I think I have a responsibility to educate and provide these resources to the broader community and develop compassion for those who may be failing in their efforts, but want to learn and want to grow in order to provide care to their loved one. There are classes and resources available for families who face a cancer diagnosis to teach each member the process of treatment, what to expect, how to support the loved one who has cancer, what their loved one can eat, etc. Why don’t we provide more of these educational & empowering experiences to families who are dealing with trauma and mental health?
The second part to this series has to do with partners and families who do not see the necessity of their support toward the healing process in trauma. These are folks who might ask questions like, “why is this still bothering you when that happened decades ago”. Unsupportive and insensitive people may question the accuracy of memory, the survivor’s choices– they may even go as far as defending or justifying the perpetrator’s abuse.
What most people do not know is that trauma response has neurobiological consequences that impact the individual’s lives daily for a long time. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects a person’s sleep, work, relationships and health daily. PTSD symptoms include: nightmares, flashbacks, depression, anxiety and memory issues. Our human brains are wired to process threatening information and to develop a response quickly. We all know this as the fight-flight-freeze response in the limbic system of the brain. In this state, our brains’ role is to quickly respond– evolutionarily this is helpful if you’re being chased by a lion. However, in prolonged states of abuse like sexual assault in childhood or domestic violence the threat is consistently there and the brain is conditioned to maintain in the fight-flight response position, which means the frontal cortex (where much of the linear thinking occurs) goes offline and cannot process information when the threat is no longer there. For traumatized people the consequences of trauma in the brain can mean that the process never reaches completion. The trauma narrative has a beginning, a middle, but there is no ending so the brain keeps processing the event as though it is still occurring. In other words, people suffering with trauma reprocess the trauma event as though it is still occurring in the here-and-now– even if the danger or threat has passed weeks, months or years prior. This is stressful and anxiety producing for the individual and it is no wonder why people feel depressed and isolated in the process.
What can be additionally traumatic and isolating are the responses that survivors receive from people. We all know about this too… the victim blaming and shaming is outrageous and all over the media and in our culture. The survivors who came forward to share their stories of victimization at the hands of Bill Cosby is one example of the silencing and shaming that goes on in society. Unfortunately, we have seen this at every layer of society from the legal system to the family to the church community. There are few spaces of safety for survivors. As sad as it is to see this in the larger society, what brings me to tears is the lack of compassion, understanding and protection from survivor’s families.
There are countless stories of survivors turning to their partners or parents or pastors or friends to share their stories and who have been met with denial and rejection.
That said, this post is to & for the survivors.
- You are brave and strong and courageous. You are a survivor. You are resilient and have endured the horror of trauma with dignity, integrity and grit. We honor you.
- I mourn that you mourn the loss of many things including a partner or loved one to support you, to understand you, to listen. I grieve that in your family you have felt voiceless and invisible. Even in your grief, I see your courage to remain and to be true to yourself and your story.
- There are people that do understand. I’ve found that although many survivors experience a loss of relationship with families they are born into they are able to build their own families and communities who may not be genetically related, but who get them, accept them and join them. These families are deep and real… It’s a family by adoption, but it is so meaningful because of the freedom each one feels to choose each other. Think of a friend or two that you trust, that you connect to and that will get your back in your darkest moments– these are your real people– your village.
- Join a support group. Support groups are important for a number of reasons: 1) it establishes a space where you are not alone, 2) support group members and facilitators understand the challenges you have faced with the trauma and in your relationships, 3) these are confidential groups so you can share your experiences without fear of reprisal, 4) support groups can be a place to develop friendships and 5) you learn from others by listening to their process and folks learn from you by hearing yours– it’s communal, collaborative and respectful in this way.
- The symptoms and challenges you experience doesn’t have to be it forever. There are empirically tested therapeutic interventions that can assist you in the symptoms you experience post-trauma. These interventions can help you develop different responses to yourself in distress. EMDR is an intervention that has been studied rigorously and has had positive outcomes for trauma symptoms. Check out the link to learn more. But a short version to EMDR is it facilitates a reconnection to the frontal cortex in the brain. Post-trauma the memory can get stuck in the amygdala and continue to reprocess the trauma. EMDR assists the brain in completing the process of information by bringing the frontal cortex back online. Emotional regulation through mindfulness is a skill that can be effective. I am happy to give some ideas of different therapies that are available and may be a good fit for specific situations. All this to say, it is possible to learn new skills, gain insight into how you’re effected by trauma and make meaning in your life.
I join the chorus in remembering and commemorating, our dear sister of soul, Maya Angelou.
A few years back I had the great fortune of hearing Maya read. It was (I believe) to be her last reading tour– She was approximately 83 years old. The experience was like no other. It wasn’t really a reading it was a speaking, as words just seemed to fall from her mouth onto our expectant ears. Here we were child-like perched at her feet– bright eyed and waiting with hopeful anticipation. And boy did she deliver.
She made her way to the podium…
silence filled the room…
And then she spoke.
Her voice– like a bell rang so clear, so precise, so resonant– lodging into the fibers of our beings immediately.
Her voice– commanding. It could have just been her and I there in that room for all I knew because her voice had the poise and ability to evoke that kind of intimacy. And I felt loved.
She spoke that evening of the suffering and the tragedies, the longings and the hopes, the breaths bated and loves thwarted.
She spoke of broken childhood, the rising of a woman and the aching of her aging bones.
Her memory was clear and differentiated. She held no ties to societies definitions of femininity or beauty. She stood tall and on her own terms. She gave the rest of the sense that we, too, could join in that resolution.
She welcomed us into the joys of conceiving and birthing our deepest dreams and yearnings. She taught us that the sweat, pain and groans of birthing give way to authentic selves. She called us to never lose hope and reminded us that self-preservation is a lie.
That evening she told us of the process of losing her sight– paying all dignity and honor to the gifts that her eyes gave her over the years and with grace releasing her eyes from the need to strain or maintain.
I know I was one of hundreds that night and yet, I felt like she knew me. That is what Maya has been doing all these years teaching all of us that we are known, as she exposes her story and the rich tradition of giving voice to tragedy, fear, triumph and courage.
She’s led all of us on this feminine tradition of telling. There is no need for secrets or hiding here… come as you are naked and open. Maya along with many other female voices (Adrienne Rich, bell hooks, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem) have been modeling for us this woman tradition of rising up and taking our place and we will ache in her absence.
I was so lucky to participate in that evening. I’ll never forget it nor her.
I’ve never been a big one for Valentines day or all the mumbo jumbo around this consumeristic celebration of love. Like I tell my girls, love is about everyday. It matters how you love the people in your life every day. And that love takes all shapes and sizes– as much as love is about romance it is also about the love we share together as ma ma and daughter, brother and sister, friends and so on… I have always been a big supporter of Eve Ensler and all the activist work she does to bring awareness to violence against women. I believe wholeheartedly in female empowerment. So today I celebrate V day in recognition of women all over the world. I hope for a safer– more compassionate and inclusive world for all women. I am just one woman, who desires to raise my girls to know their capacity, strength and passion in the world so that they may follow their heart courageously and unapologetically. This is hope for my daughters and all the daughters of our earth.
Your heart won’t steer you wrong.)