Friday, July 10, 2020

"Not Representative"

I like speaking out about trauma and lawyers' mental health. As someone directly affected, it's important to me to engage in this kind of advocacy.

That said, one thing I'm very aware of is that I definitely can't and don't speak for everyone, not even everyone who shares the same condition.

Initially I hesitated to speak at all for many reasons, including the fact that in many ways I'm not your "typical" traumatized person. I have some strengths that might not usually be expected and some limitations that others might not share. The things that help me often may not be the things that help others with my same condition, and the things I avoid may be the very things that many, if not most, embrace.

But then I realized that's all the more reason to share my perspective.

There is no such thing as a perfectly "typical" traumatized person. We may share some characteristics and tendencies in common but we each have our own strengths, quirks, stories, fears, circumstances, hopes, dreams, boundaries and limits. And even the things we have in common can manifest themselves in very different ways.

Which is why we need to share and hear as many perspectives as possible: not to crowd other voices out but to shatter stereotypes and make room for individuality and autonomy to be recognized.

So when I speak now I'm sharing my perspective as a challenge to rigid generalizations not to make room for others to be like me and follow along on the path I'm choosing to take, but to help make space for them to be whoever they truly are and wish to be.

As always, please note that I am a lawyer, not a mental health professional of any kind. I have no expertise in trauma or mental health. Also, please note that any opinions and views expressed in this blog are solely my own and are not intended to represent the views or opinions of my employer in any way. For more information about the purpose of this blog, please see here and for a bit more information about my personal perspective on this issue, please see "my story" here

I am very grateful to have received a "Clawbie" Award for this blog (which reflects the importance of this topic): https://www.clawbies.ca/2019-clawbies-canadian-law-blog-awards/ 

For some of my external writing on this topic, see:  



Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Visibility

In my writing on trauma and mental illness, I've focused a lot on the need to avoid rigid generalizations. No matter how much we think we know right now, it's not enough. Something and someone is always being left out.

This is especially important because our knowledge about trauma and mental illness is particularly limited by problems with visibility.

In both directions. 

Some people affected by trauma and mental illness suffer an invisibility problem: no one allows them to be seen or speak for themselves about what they've experienced. To fit in, they have to hide who they are. Others may suffer from an excess of visibility: all privacy is lost due to the manner in which their trauma and/or mental illness manifests itself (and/or how others view and portray their circumstances/behaviour). Many may suffer from a combination of both: they may have diminished visibility in some important ways while also having to endure a lack of privacy in others.

So any effort to attend to the impact and implications of trauma and/or mental illness must be accompanied by an ongoing and active commitment to humility. Rather than having engrained opinions about what the "essence" of trauma and mental illness is,  and what the traumatized and mentally ill need or are capable of based on what we have been able to see (through our own experiences and what we've seen from others), we need to start by learning to listen and maintain an openness about what we don't and can't yet know.

Even the experts are subject to those limits, in my view, since this is an area in which many people never come forward for treatment and/or may never feel safe fully sharing their perspectives and experiences even if they do. The available methods to study such things are also subject to all kinds of limits and biases. There is much we can learn but there is also so much humility required.

That's why I am allergic to generalizations. Yes, there's a lot that we can learn from science and "experts" and we probably can't avoid tentatively generalizing based on the knowledge we've managed to gain so far, but if we aren't also being cautious and flexible about what might be being left out--what might be rendered invisible and/or excessively/distortedly visible based on the way the questions have so far been asked and studied--then we will be causing more harm than good.

So the starting point (and constant touchstone) must be to pay attention to and truly empower those with lived experience. And that means a real act of listening for the ways in which particular survivors and communities wish to be seen and heard. It means no one story is enough. And we are never finished. Everything is subject to revision when a new perspective gets included.

This is why I've found social media so helpful. I've made a choice to follow people speaking out about their own lived experience. I have a lot in common with some and a very different experience than others. Throughout any given day, I learn so much by hearing directly from those who share their stories and perspectives in a way that would otherwise never have occurred to me.

I've also made a point of trying to read more memoirs and non-fiction directly from those affected. Being able to empathize with those who are differently situated takes conscious effort and attention.

It's just a beginning and sometimes we humans don't do too well with having to be at the beginning of things. We want to rush to the punchline and distill the lesson to be learned. We want our generalizations to live by and share.

There's a lot we can learn when we slow down and actively resist the propensity to generalize. Rather than learn big lessons about what we all need or what works for everyone, we can just learn about and from each other first about how we each see ourselves and our own needs. Good things can happen when we don't rush in a hurried stampede to the finish line. We can slow down and try to ensure that everyone can remain in the race. We may not know yet exactly what we are or should be moving towards, but at least we can try our best to remain together and leave no one behind.

As always, please note that I am a lawyer, not a mental health professional of any kind. I have no expertise in trauma or mental health. Also, please note that any opinions and views expressed in this blog are solely my own and are not intended to represent the views or opinions of my employer in any way. For more information about the purpose of this blog, please see here and for a bit more information about my personal perspective on this issue, please see "my story" here

I am very grateful to have received a "Clawbie" Award for this blog (which reflects the importance of this topic): https://www.clawbies.ca/2019-clawbies-canadian-law-blog-awards/ 

For some of my external writing on this topic, see:  








Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Little Understanding--It's Okay to Acknowledge How Hard This All Is

Pandemic life is really difficult for some of us.

I speak as someone ultra-privileged in many ways yet suffering in others.

Could we please stop sending the message that any of this is easy or that any aspect of this is  no big deal? We all have to make sacrifices, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't acknowledge just how much some people are being asked to give up, and at the very least show some compassion for, if not try to ameliorate, the losses and suffering as much as possible, before we say how angry we are at those who are (seemingly) inexplicably non-compliant.

One personal example: I totally get that wearing a mask is necessary in many circumstances, but please stop the condescending ableist commentary about how it's "no big deal" and there should be complaining whatsoever.

For someone with PTSD, having a mandatory face covering that interferes with breathing can be a really big deal. I'm not going to use this post to explain that. I'm not going to share the nature of some of the trauma I've been through or what it triggers in me to feel like my breathing is being obstructed while I'm unable to help myself by removing the obstacle.

All you need to know is that there are real health consequences for me when I have to wear one.

I do it anyway for public health reasons (because I care about keeping others, especially those who are vulnerable, safe) but that doesn't mean I have no right to complain or seek empathy, or ask that the requirement for masks be limited to circumstances in which they're actually useful.

The consequences for me don't get to override the other considerations but they should at least be weighed and considered.

There are other ways in which my PTSD makes my pandemic experience especially difficult, particularly as someone very isolated with no "close contacts" in my current location and very limited supports.

But I didn't write this post to complain about my circumstances. I'm suffering a great deal due to the pandemic, as so many of us are, but in many ways I'm incredibly fortunate and highly privileged.

As someone who cares about mental health and compassion, I'm simply asking that when we express our disdain for the way others are behaving that we at least ensure that we've (1) attempted to empathize with their situation to understand why they might be acting that way; and (2) done, or at least considered, what we might be able to do to ensure the decisions we make aren't needlessly adding to their suffering. We can't ask others to be on our team if we aren't on theirs.

Some people have lost jobs. Some have lost loved ones. Some are confined in intolerable circumstances. Some are alone while others are trapped with people who are abusing them.

None of this is easy.

I'll be honest and say there are moments when I've felt an overwhelming need to just pretend this pandemic doesn't exist, not because I'm not a good caring person, but because this is a profound shock and my brain wants to protect me by rebelling against the oppressive reality we've all found ourselves trapped in. I've nevertheless continued to follow public health guidelines, but I doubt there is anyone out there who hasn't had moments of just wanting, maybe needing, to wish it all away.

These are things we need to be able to openly acknowledge and discuss in a nuanced, sensitive, compassionate way. Mandatory stoicism isn't the answer here when so many are suffering so much. We need to listen now more than ever. So many people on the margins were routinely ignored and dismissed before when things were normal. Now that things are "unprecedented" there's no way for us to understand the diverse impacts if we don't actually make the effort to have the conversations and truly listen, especially to those whose circumstances we don't intuitively understand. Now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions, judgments and decisions.

Yes, we need to make policy decisions that may limit the freedom of many and cause some to suffer particularly harshly for the greater good. I'm not here to personally say what those decisions should be or how they should be enforced.

And judging others for how they conduct themselves may also be unavoidable (I'm certainly not immune to such judgments myself). But as we do so, let's also try:  (1) listening/empathizing and (2) asking what we can do to help. Maybe at the end of the day some things just can't be fixed by either of those steps. Maybe the judgment will remain, but before we vocalize our displeasure about it, let's make sure we aren't missing something important: a little bit of perspective perhaps.

I'm still learning it myself and I doubt we can eradicate the frustration and quick judgments. But we can try.

As always, please note that I am a lawyer, not a mental health professional of any kind. I have no expertise in trauma or mental health. Also, please note that any opinions and views expressed in this blog are solely my own and are not intended to represent the views or opinions of my employer in any way. For more information about the purpose of this blog, please see here and for a bit more information about my personal perspective on this issue, please see "my story" here

I am very grateful to have received a "Clawbie" Award for this blog (which reflects the importance of this topic): https://www.clawbies.ca/2019-clawbies-canadian-law-blog-awards/

For some of my external writing on this topic, see:  





Saturday, May 23, 2020

Healing is Not Always Easy and That's Okay

Without going into details, I can say that I've been experiencing the downside of healing lately. Things have been extremely difficult and painful, and I find myself wondering for the first time if it was a mistake to attempt to heal.

The thing about healing is that for some it may be genuinely straightforward and easy. There may be a simple step to take: once you do it, you wonder what took so long and you exclaim, "If only I had done that sooner." Often the messaging on mental health speaks as if all healing is like this: "Reach out and you will be helped" as if it's a presto-change-o magic-pill scenario. Reaching out is the only thing missing. Do that and you'll be saved.

But one thing that I think gets neglected a lot in this discourse is that sometimes (especially with complex trauma) there may be no straight line to healing, no easy path.

Sometimes the depth and complexity of one's suffering makes the path to healing almost unavoidably complicated. There are dangers, difficulties and drawbacks along the way. The obstacles in the path may include pain, grief, and shame, along with overwhelming existential paradoxes the person was trying to avoid facing (perhaps with very good reason).

Hiding from one's pain has its advantages. If we don't acknowledge this, we won't be able to reach those who are opting not to move along the path towards "healing" for legitimate reasons. If we want to truly help those whose path towards attempting to heal may be inherently painful and complex, we need to be able to see the validity in their decision to wait until they are ready. It's difficult enough to walk this path willingly. No one should be forced onto it (unless perhaps because the dangers in remaining stuck are imminently extremely dangerous).

I waited and waited and wasted a huge part of my life in doing so. I had good reason for remaining stuck. I didn't want to implode my life and destroy those few things I was proud of having built. Then one day, it became clear to me that I could wait no longer. My resting place (hiding place) was no longer safe. I had to proceed or perish. I therefore willingly and enthusiastically embarked on a journey of "recovery." I do wish I had started the journey sooner, but, as I fumble along it, I increasingly realize how valid my earlier fears were. I wasn't being stupid. I was making the best choices I could given the dangers I faced in all directions. Maybe the choices I made and the timing of those choices weren't perfect, but I was doing the best I could given the very legitimate concerns and fears I had.

There can be genuine risks involved in the healing process. It isn't all sunshine, kittens and baby bats. Facing and addressing the damage that has accrued to our psyche/brains/bodies over time can be excruciating. To me it sometimes feels like unraveling twisted body parts after a long game of Twister gone horribly wrong. It can be exhausting, painful and dangerous, yet necessary if I'm ever going to have any hope of moving forward.

So here I am, not giving up yet, but doing a lot of soul-searching about this perilous (yet necessary) path I've committed to and what its dangers and drawbacks can teach me. I couldn't turn back now even if I wanted to. The path behind me no longer exists. Maybe there will come a time when the way forward suddenly becomes easier in ways I couldn't have predicted. Maybe something will work wonders for me and I'll exclaim, "Why did I wait so long to start on this path?" Or maybe it will continue to be painful and difficult for a long time.

My message for others who may face a complicated journey: I see you and empathize. We all have to make difficult choices. Please don't infer from the difficulty of my journey that yours will be equally difficult. Many people do describe a much simpler path towards healing. Mine is complicated by the nature of what I've been through and the type of person I am. Maybe if you try, your path will be straightforward and simple.

But if it's not, that's okay. Even if there are no easy answers, there are people who understand. You have my support and compassion even when your path towards healing seems to be going nowhere (or backwards). Even when you're scared and stuck. This stuff isn't easy and that's okay.

The path may not always be easy, but you're not alone on it.

With empathy, solidarity, and, of course, baby bats,
C



As always, please note that I am a lawyer, not a mental health professional of any kind. I have no expertise in trauma or mental health. Also, please note that any opinions and views expressed in this blog are solely my own and are not intended to represent the views or opinions of my employer in any way. For more information about the purpose of this blog, please see here and for a bit more information about my personal perspective on this issue, please see "my story" here

I am very grateful to have received a "Clawbie" Award for this blog (which reflects the importance of this topic): https://www.clawbies.ca/2019-clawbies-canadian-law-blog-awards/

For some of my external writing on this topic, see:  




Saturday, April 25, 2020

Being Flexible With Each Other In Difficult Times: Let's Cool It With the Mandatory Videos

As someone who entered this profession in many ways as an outsider, I've never been fond of the rigid demands of etiquette and protocol in the legal profession. Most evolved when many of us were not welcome, and then acquired fixed status because they became part of the culture of our profession, its "tradition." Those who have a different perspective on what our shared culture and values might be are often silenced. Perhaps they just don't belong here if they don't respect the norms and values that have such a long rich history, even though no one similarly situated to them ever got a say in how those norms and values were identified and articulated.

Although I have deep respect for the role of the profession and the Courts, overly aristocratic notions of how a lawyer must appear and behave out of "respect" for the role and tradition of the profession have been a concern of mine from the very beginning. To me they far too often seem to be shallow bases to judge and shame each other for reasons that don't serve the true ends of the justice system. They often feel like superficial distractions that don't  reflect true merit, substance and integrity.

And often they can be harmful to those whose circumstances weren't considered or understood when they were created. In other words, far too often the burden of not being able to easily fit in with those visions of how a lawyer should look and act falls disproportionately at the feet of those who might not otherwise fit in as easily.

Enter the pandemic.

Suddenly our ways of doing things are indeed rapidly changing, at a time when we are in a situation that affects everyone (supposedly an "equalizer"), yet may have very different impacts depending on widely varying circumstances. This raises the potential to dramatically reinforce disparities if we proceed without sensitivity to this possibility.

Of course, it's a good thing that changes are being made to enable as many as possible of us to keep functioning both professionally and socially, but proceeding heedless of who may be adversely impacted by the new ways of doing things will risk those who already had the hardest time fitting in being the ones left out and/or harmed.

For instance, the sudden shift to expecting or even requiring people to participate in work, professional development, or social events via video (when the substance of what is being done doesn't truly require it) overlooks the many reasons why this may not be comfortable, possible or even safe for some. Not only do people have different comfort levels in this regard for good reason (at a time when a pandemic is triggering and intensifying existing mental health issues while also creating a risk for new ones), but people have very different spaces in which they are confined. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to appreciate that some people may be less comfortably situated than others. Some may have homes they are not comfortable sharing due to economic disadvantage, safety or privacy concerns (especially if they have had their personal space invaded or violated before and are therefore especially sensitive to those latter concerns). Some may not easily be able to find a visually acceptable private space due to the others who are in the home (perhaps the bedroom, as "unprofessional" as it may seem, is the only quiet space with sufficient internet connection for someone cohabiting with others who are using the other areas of the home). Some may not be able to ensure the privacy of the more vulnerable members of their home (e.g., very young children who have to be cared for even while work duties are performed). Some may have unsafe home environments with an ever-increasing level of tension due to the pandemic, e.g., with an unpredictable, dysfunctional and/or perhaps even abusive partner, and may therefore not feel safe or comfortable being visually available to their colleagues when they can't say for certain that their partner will be respectful of and allow them that video space.

The point is that people are in their homes enmeshed in all kinds of varying personal situations with all the heightened vulnerability which that may entail. Whatever their circumstances may be, it's none of the profession's business. It's never been our obligation to maintain our home and personal lives a certain way to be allowed to participate professionally, or to share those circumstances in a work context. Nor was there any chance to arrange our lives differently in anticipation of this sudden change in circumstances. Moreover, this doesn't simply affect lawyers (though I speak from that perspective); it has the potential to affect other participants (e.g., staff/litigants).

And to the extent that the privacy of those video sessions may not be assured (with some even being deliberately streamed and/or posted online), then an even wider array of well-being and safety considerations may arise (e.g., for those who have been targeted by others in the past and whose safety may actually be threatened by suddenly being forced into that kind of a wide-reaching public space unlike ever before with no opportunity to mitigate those dangers, or whose past fears in that regard may be triggered even if their actual safety may not currently be at risk as it was in the past) at a time when many are already especially emotionally vulnerable due to the isolation, confinement and fear caused by the pandemic.

Perhaps the answer is that those who can't suitably meet the requirements will just have to suck it up and expose themselves to the health risks involved in physically attending the workspace. After all, we will then have accommodated as many people as possible, and if there are some who don't quite "fit" our way of doing things, who can't meet those requirements, then unfortunately that's just unavoidable and they will not get the accommodations of which those who are better-situated can avail themselves.

My view: this can't be the answer either, at least not completely.

Yes, keeping the profession moving is a good thing, and, yes, those who work in essential areas may unfortunately be called upon to work in ways that aren't ideal, but shouldn't we first ask ourselves what's truly necessary before we force those who are already potentially the most marginalized within our professional spaces to be the ones who have to endure the greatest risks and disadvantages in order to maintain their ability to participate in the midst of a global crisis? Shouldn't we be minimally invasive rather than press ahead with one rigid way of doing things just because it is "preferred" by those who don't have the concerns and constraints that those others may? Shouldn't it matter that those most disproportionately impacted by more rigid and invasive requirements may be those who have already been most excluded?

Also from a public health perspective, shouldn't we do what's necessary to ensure that even those who are less ideally situated can remain at home so they needn't put public health at risk by venturing out into the workplace?

Perhaps the "insiders" in the profession don't realize the extent to which many "outsiders" already have to sacrifice so much of their comfort, well-being and perhaps even safety on a regular basis simply to navigate and fit within the existing culture, protocols and etiquette that were not informed very much if at all by their input or experiences.

And due to the failure to appreciate that reality, those "insiders" may also fail to appreciate how readily mandatory protocols and norms that may "only" have been oppressive before can quickly become crushing when the context suddenly shifts and they become more invasive, taking away the little bits of privacy and/or dignity some of us were able to hold onto before: collapsing our private lives, our personal spaces, our control over our own image, our ability to do what needs to be done to get through the day in our own way in the absence of prying eyes when the personal and professional unexpectedly collide.

So how should we do this? This is all happening so quickly. I get it. It's tough. Keeping things going is important. We can't do the kind of consultation and planning that (one would hope) would be done if major changes were contemplated in ordinary circumstances to assess the unintended impacts new procedures may have on wellness, safety, equality, diversity and inclusion. So here are my suggestions for how we should proceed in the meantime:
  • Flexibility should be the rule: this is new territory for everyone. We can't imagine all the varying ways in which those around us may be affected and we need to recognize it may not be safe or comfortable for them to tell us. So new procedures whenever possible should allow for maximum flexibility without the need for explanation. For instance, if video meetings etc. are happening, then there should be options available for everyone to participate in a way that feels comfortable and safe to them without any questions or obstacles. That means allowing an audio only option (unless it's a situation where credibility is at stake and we truly have reason why we must see people's faces, as opposed to simply preferring to do so). This also means ensuring an option of adding a blank or false background so participants needn't invite us into their personal space. This further means ensuring the privacy of the recording to the greatest extent possible because we have no way of knowing the ways in which people's health and safety may be affected by a sudden change in how widely distributed their personal image is, and a global pandemic isn't the time to force people to have to also suddenly adapt to having to surrender their privacy to a far greater extent than ever before, with all the health and safety concerns this may involve. It means minimizing judgments and criticisms about the circumstances in which people "appear" (the bedroom may be all that's available; someone's only two or three suits may be at the office--so be it. It's time to get over rigid and harsh judgments and just focus on substance). Generally it means pro-actively expressing an openness to participants being able to raise concerns or delay non-essential matters if the available options aren't comfortable or safe for them.  
  • Input should be sought from potential participants before procedures are developed and on an ongoing basis: there is no way those making these decisions are magically intuitively aware of all the diverse ways in which people may be affected by a proposed new way of doing things. A willingness to listen, learn and adapt is essential: we must have the humility to realize that any proposed procedures will have unintended consequences for those who are differently situated. Input should be sought (with the understanding that not everyone may currently feel safe and comfortable providing it, which is why flexibility is so important).
  • We need to use our empathy and imagination rather than assume everyone is similarly situated: not everyone has a nice den in which to set up a camera, a large home in which it's possible to carve out visually private space, and a sense of comfort and safety to feel okay about inviting colleagues and other participants into their private life in an unprecedented way. Before creating procedures based on a set of assumptions about what this will involve for participants, some empathic imagination needs to be employed. What about those who are economically marginalized and have very limited space? What about those who disproportionately end up with the burden of care-taking obligations of dependents? What about those who are especially vulnerable and whose sense of safety and perhaps even actual safety may be jeopardized by suddenly having to surrender their privacy during an already vulnerable situation in an unprecedented invasive way? What obstacles might be in place that could prevent those who have concerns from raising them? How can we be flexible and compassionate to avoid disproportionately harming, burdening, and excluding those who have already been most marginalized? 
Deliberately exercising caution as we decide which norms and values must remain rigid and which can be flexible is more essential than ever, unless we want this pandemic to render our procedures even less inclusive than they were before. Yes, we are used to seeing each other's lovely faces, and surely it's "preferable" to continue to be able to do so. But as we've witnessed, this unprecedented situation requires us to rapidly do things differently than we have in the past. Our judgments about which things should be rigid and which should be flexible could have serious repercussions for the equality, inclusion, well-being, and even safety of those involved at a time when those affected are limited in their ability to share their concerns. Let's be as flexible as we can. Those of us who still have the option of working are lucky and I realize that there may be countervailing considerations to some of what I've expressed above which also need to be considered. But unless we want those who are "fortunate" enough to be able to keep working to be disproportionately composed of those who were most privileged and "fortunate" to begin with, we need to start showing some flexibility, compassion, and a willingness to rethink our impulses about how things "must" be done.

As always, please note that I am a lawyer, not a mental health professional of any kind. I have no expertise in trauma or mental health. Also, please note that any opinions and views expressed in this blog are solely my own and are not intended to represent the views or opinions of my employer in any way. For more information about the purpose of this blog, please see here and for a bit more information about my personal perspective on this issue, please see "my story" here

I am very grateful to have received a "Clawbie" Award for this blog (which reflects the importance of this topic): https://www.clawbies.ca/2019-clawbies-canadian-law-blog-awards/

For some of my external writing on this topic, see: 





Sunday, April 19, 2020

This Isn't A Coping Contest

Yikes, the world sure is falling apart, isn't it? Or maybe not? Maybe this is a time for many of us to reflect and rise stronger with a better relationship to ourselves, improved connections to (and/or boundaries with) family, friends and colleagues, increased appreciation for and protection of the natural world and our place as humans within it, etc.,etc....

The wisdom on offer out there seems boundless and overwhelming. To be honest, I'm personally not up for most of it. I don't mean to belittle those who are seeking answers, and finding them. There's nothing wrong with that and I admire it. Whatever works to help anyone cope is totally okay, as I wrote here.

I see many people proclaiming how past adversity has taught them to cope now and I don't doubt it. Some of us have endured serious long-lasting trauma and adversity before. Some of us have lived with anxiety for a long time, and may nevertheless have managed to be high-functioning. We have tried and true coping mechanisms that helped us get through those experiences and will help us get through this too...right?

Again, I have no problem with this either. Some of us are uniquely equipped to handle a situation like this. Old coping mechanisms and ways of surviving are at the ready, and spring into action.

So if that describes you, great. One thing I've written about (here) before the pandemic was how those who have survived trauma and adversity can be "heroes" by helping to guide others. That resilience is not illusory. It's real and if you have it to draw on right now, you have every right to be proud and tell the world about it.

But, on the other hand, at least for me, my superhero-trauma-coping-abilities are double-edged. They come with a heavy cost. As I've written before many times, my experience of trauma includes great strength/knowledge (which can help me to cope sometimes like a superhero), but also deep vulnerability (which can make a time like this even more difficult for me than it may be for others who don't share that preexisting vulnerability).

For a long time, I tried to emphasize my strengths to the exclusion of my vulnerabilities. Because I demanded it of myself--and because my profession seemed to demand it of me (as I wrote here). I wasn't even always aware that I was doing it. In many ways, I acknowledged my own vulnerabilities more than many of my friends and colleagues. It's not like I pretended to be superwoman, but I wasn't prepared to fully face (and feel) the ways in which I was especially suffering and vulnerable, and there was a cost to this, as I explained here. That cost resulted in me putting my life on hold for a long time, and I don't know to what extent I'll ever be able to recover from what I lost as a result.

But a year ago, I decided that had to change. I was never going to heal (or even continue to manage) if I didn't find a way to truly face my suffering: the ways in which I wasn't always (or at least wasn't only) a hero, or an ultra-resilient tough-as-steel warrior. I was also a vulnerable human being. No amount of resilience and heroism can change the fact that as humans we have great vulnerability in the face of terrible situations and events.True coping, for me at least, is inherently uncomfortable sometimes, because it has to embrace and balance those two sides of the equation and the ways they have played out for me in my own life.

I was in the process of learning to embrace, or at least face, my vulnerability. That meant admitting that I had a problem (without surrendering my understanding of the ways in which I was and remained strong) and seeking help in ways that felt safe and right to me. It was a journey I began more than a year ago that I knew wouldn't be easy. I'd been putting it off for so long for a reason: because there would be no quick fixes, and it would render me extra-vulnerable at times as I proceeded along it.

I didn't want magic pills that made the pain, shame and intense experience of my own vulnerability disappear. I wanted to do the hard work because my feeling was (and remains) that the only way to truly reconcile my strength with my suffering/vulnerability is to walk that difficult path of truly facing something that has the potential to overwhelm me--albeit carefully and with support.

Enter the pandemic: at a time when I hadn't finished that journey. I was just at the beginning and had important steps that were imminent and have now been put on hold indefinitely.

So now what? Do I launch into my tried and true coping methods, many of which require me to set aside the keen sense of my own vulnerability that my healing journey required me to face because maybe now it's just too much for me on top of everything else? I've done that before and could perhaps do it again and be really good at it.

I fear the consequences of doing so, but maybe it's necessary. I really don't know.

It's why my greatest fear, given where I am in my own journey right now, is "over-coping," and losing the connection to my own suffering and vulnerability that is so essential for me to heal. I don't want to be so vulnerable that I succumb to the added pressure and stress, but I also don't want to lose the benefit of those hard-earned steps I've taken and backslide to a point where true healing becomes even more distant. I'm not sure if it's a road I can start on again anytime soon if I lose the fragile-seeming progress I had made.

So all that is just to say that for me coping is a complicated concept. I've heard some say that those who have experienced trauma and mental health issues seem to be coping "better" and that's entirely possible in many cases. Yet it's also undeniably true that many who have experienced trauma are not coping "better" and it's not necessarily because they aren't as strong or advanced in their resilience. If this pandemic had happened at a different stage in my life, at a less advanced (for me) stage of healing, I likely would have coped heroically with it. Yet now it's highly triggering. That's not to say those who are coping well are less advanced. Some may have truly done the hard work of healing and have learned important lessons to help them endure this and are in a genuinely good place.

But for me healing doesn't mean not being incredibly vulnerable to events of massive significance like a global pandemic. It means finding the right balance between my strength and vulnerability both as an individual and as a human (the vulnerability inherent in being a human in a world filled with dangers we often can't control). It means strengthening the parts of me that allow me to be both strong and vulnerable. It is not a destination but a lifelong process that can sometimes be very painful and difficult.

My complicated past gives me important tools to help me succeed in being resilient in the face of great danger but also renders me especially vulnerable in many ways. The key to my own "resilience" (a word I've learned to kind of hate, though I understand it works for many others) has been to try to maintain an ongoing curiosity about where I am on that spectrum and try to find ways of coping that don't erase one side of the equation in favour of the other. I've learned that sometimes when I think I'm coping like a superhero, I'm really just numbing myself to the reality of the situation in ways that may serve me now but might not serve me later. If it helps, great. There's no inherently wrong way to survive in the face of a dangerous situation. But it's also okay to abandon a method of coping if the cost is too great.

All the above is really just a long-winded way for me to say that regardless of where you are on the spectrum--feeling strong and coping well, or intensely suffering and feeling especially vulnerable--it doesn't mean that you're doing it wrong or less advanced than someone who might be handling it differently.  We're not competing with others or with ourselves. To state just a few possibilities: Some of us will learn important lessons from this. Some of us may just go into a sort of numbed-out state to get by and maybe unlearn some of the lessons we thought we knew before. Some of us will go back and forth between over-coping and feeling overwhelmed.

I have no idea what the answer is for me. Quite frankly it changes daily. It's also entirely possible that I'm overthinking it (something I'm told I'm prone to) and I'd be better off proceeding more on instinct.

But all I want to say is: it's not a contest. One thing I know from my own history is that I can never tell how well I've coped, or how "resilient" I've been, until more time has elapsed and I can see the role a particular response played in my overall journey. There may be a science to it, but many of us don't know what that is, and it probably differs for those of us who are differently situated. So let's just do the best we can, with an open mind about what works and doesn't, so we can retain the flexibility to adapt our approach as the weeks become months, and once we are ready to emerge from this and rebuild.

If you're doing great and baking more bread than you could ever hope to eat, that's great. If you're feeling intensely triggered, maybe even falling apart, and need to reach out for help from friends and/or professionals, that's okay too. It may be exactly what you need to get through this.

Wishing everyone well in their particular journey,
Crystal

As always, please note that I am a lawyer, not a mental health professional of any kind. I have no expertise in trauma or mental health. Also, please note that any opinions and views expressed in this blog are solely my own and are not intended to represent the views or opinions of my employer in any way. For more information about the purpose of this blog, please see here and for a bit more information about my personal perspective on this issue, please see "my story" here

I am very grateful to have received a "Clawbie" Award for this blog (which reflects the importance of this topic): https://www.clawbies.ca/2019-clawbies-canadian-law-blog-awards/

For some of my external writing on this topic, see: 






Monday, April 13, 2020

Whatever Works (Allowing for Flexibility in Difficult Times)

I've found it really difficult to think about what I might write in this blog in view of what's been going on in the world right now.

Just at a time when I was finally working on the difficult process of thinking about my own healing and moving towards important treatment options (that would have involved cross border travel), the world fell apart.

I feel deep sadness for everyone affected right now, including those who, like me, were finally starting to face their own trauma and/or mental health in a meaningful way for the first time only to have the ground beneath their (and the entire world's) feet shift in an unprecedented way.

Or maybe some weren't quite ready yet, and the trauma of what's been going on in the world has forced the issue. Emotions may be surfacing that feel uncontrollable, and the links between current and past experiences may be harder to ignore at a time when the options for addressing the issues may seem less obvious and accessible than ever.

This is a really difficult situation and I don't have the answers for anyone. There are mental health professionals still providing support in virtual ways along with self-help sources that may be of assistance to some, so I encourage people to explore those options to see if any feel right to them. Also, in-person services do still exist for health needs that require them, so if you need to avail yourself of those options, then you absolutely can still do so.

As for what I'm learning right now (which may or may not be of assistance to others), it's that my own emotional needs and responses have been shifting all over the place and the biggest error I could make for myself right now is to demand any consistent or unifying meaning to emerge from this at the moment. What I need right now is survival and more than anything what survival requires from me in a situation like this is flexibility.

Some days/hours/moments I feel numb. At other times anxious. Other times are characterized by depression/grief; others by frustration. Sometimes I'm just profoundly bored and lonely.

I need the flexibility to one day be annoyed by all the attempts to find meaning in this, while retaining the ability the very next day to focus on those very same questions and answers that irritated me the day before. I need the flexibility to think only about getting through each minute and hour one day, while then carefully planning and strategizing all possible future outcomes the next day. I need to be gentle on myself one day, set all "self-care" requirements aside and eat non-stop junk food, and then shift the next day into remembering how important it is for me to take care of my physical health for the sake of my mental health. For me at least, with an inner world that is already complex and ever-shifting, survival is in many ways more of an art than a science, now more than ever. The ground shifts faster than I can predict and plan for, so intuition is just as important as planning. Which is why flexibility is key. The approach I might need in any given moment might be the exact opposite of what I needed in the previous one, with no clear answer as to why. I need to be flexible and responsive and let go of the need to understand the why of it all before deciding and doing what needs to be done.

I'm not saying that we all should avoid trying to find meaning in this, or planning for what we need. In fact, I think that reflecting on what the meaning could be, and whatever lessons might be gleaned about our own needs, might be a very useful exercise for some of us some of the time, and certainly has always had great importance for me, including now. But I'm saying that for me at least I have to be careful not to demand a quick answer and a consistent meaning or plan from the situation right now by which I can guide myself. Why? Because the scale and scope of what is happening right now and what it triggers within me are of a magnitude that can't simply readily be formulated and digested into easily ascertainable guiding principles. For me flexibility is the answer right now. Planning and seeking meaning can be very helpful as long as I allow those processes to remain provisional/tentative, thereby maintaining room for flexibility and intuition as my needs, perception and understanding shift.

Before going to law school my background was in philosophy. There's a reason why the history of philosophy is complex and lacking in consensus. Finding the deeper meaning in things is not usually easy, especially in the face of a complicated crisis that calls into question all our previous assumptions. It may be asking too much of ourselves to use this situation to suddenly have perfect clarity about what the meaning of life is and what our core needs are. That doesn't mean the situation won't bring clarity on those issues for some of us. There are a lot of important realizations happening for many of us right now about what is of greater or lesser importance (maybe relating to first principles/key values re the importance of caring for each other as best we can, and connecting with and protecting the natural world), but synthesizing those into some consistent guide is often not easy, and it's okay not to have all the answers right now. Which is why I need to remind myself of the need to be gentle and flexible on those issues right now. Crises can help to clarify important deep questions but that doesn't mean the conditions are necessarily right to arrive at any clear, final or obvious answers.

If it helps you to reflect on what the meaning in all of this may be and how we might best emerge from this, then I'd suggest doing so. I'm doing a lot of that these days and sometimes it's helpful. But if the answers don't always come easy, that's okay. If the answer that seems so clear and obvious one day doesn't provide any strength or comfort the next day, that's okay too.

We have limits. Figuring out the meaning of life/humanity is a journey that can involve a complicated process of reflection and self-discovery that we might not all be ready for right now. So let's learn what we can from this, but also let's allow each other and ourselves to just get through it in whatever way we can. In whatever way works for us.

There will be a lifetime ahead for us to reflect on and uncover the meaning in it all. In the meantime, inconsistency is okay and for some of us maybe even life-saving. It's okay if we need to be a bit erratic and maybe even seem a little inconsistent and hypocritical at a time like this. The flexibility required for intuition and self-discovery during such a rocky time is a process that might take all kinds of twists/turns/bumps/pauses before showing any consistent thread/pattern. Just because immediate answers aren't readily available doesn't mean that we aren't progressing as we need to along a complicated, bumpy, topsy-turvy path.

As always, please note that I am a lawyer, not a mental health professional of any kind. I have no expertise in trauma or mental health. Also, please note that any opinions and views expressed in this blog are solely my own and are not intended to represent the views or opinions of my employer in any way. For more information about the purpose of this blog, please see here and for a bit more information about my personal perspective on this issue, please see "my story" here

I am very grateful to have received a "Clawbie" Award for this blog (which reflects the importance of this topic): https://www.clawbies.ca/2019-clawbies-canadian-law-blog-awards/

For some of my external writing on this topic, see: