Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Trauma Resources (A Very Incomplete List--A Place to Start)

I've been meaning to put something like this together since the beginning but have always hesitated because I fear my list not being comprehensive or authoritative enough. I worry it may miss something others may find helpful, or may include something someone finds unhelpful or even harmful.

We're all different, so some of what helps me may not help you. But having a place to start may be helpful for some people, so here are some resources that I'm aware of that may be interesting and/or useful to others. If you feel it may be helpful to you, feel free to review them and make your own decisions about which may suit your needs.

I'm keeping it small for now, and including only those resources that I've either reviewed/used myself or intend to review/use in the future. 

Several of the books on the list, I'll confess, I own but haven't read yet or have only skimmed.

Even the ones that have helped me immensely, I view as resources rather than authorities. It's rare for me to agree with every word someone else writes.  (For example, I previously wrote about how "Trauma & Recovery," my favourite book about trauma, nevertheless caused some harm to me as I explored here)

Learning about trauma can be triggering so please consider your own limits in deciding whether or when to review any materials about it. I've found it helpful to learn about trauma, but have sometimes had to pace myself.

This will be skeletal at first but I will add to it and revise it as I come across new sources (or remember the ones I've previously benefited from).


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. 

I am very grateful to have received a 2019 "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, February 21, 2021

"Self-Love" Musings, Why It's Not My Goal

"We must love ourselves, or else...."

"No one will love us?"

"We can't truly love others?"

Speaking for myself, I reject those rules about what love is or must be.

Self-love may be problematic for some of us. In particular, shame/self-loathing can be a core symptom of Complex PTSD, as I explored here.

We may be overflowing with love for humanity and compassion for all sentient beings. Kindness towards others may be the animating principle that we aspire to guide our lives.

Except for ourselves.

It's possible (for some of us, at least) to love humanity and hate ourselves. Or simply exist in a complicated relationship with ourselves that isn't loving. 

I know this because I've not only experienced it in myself but also observed it in others. Some of the most loving, humble, gentle, compassionate, caring people I know are those who struggle with deep self-hatred. Some of these deeply loving people have tried their very best to "heal" that self-hatred. They've perhaps tried to medicate it, and/or "cure" it with therapy, or philosophical aphorisms. But it's persisted. And its persistence has deepened their sense of shame and been used abusively by others to further isolate/blame them. 

I feel sad when people don't love themselves (except for myself, because it's complicated and asymmetrical, as I wrote in the previous post cited above) . I want everyone to have self-love who can (as I wrote here), but those who lack it don't necessarily lack the experience of true, vibrant, rich, deep, meaningful love. And we aren't being kind IMO by trying to pressure, cajole or shame people into believing the love they do get to experience isn't valid and real.

As for those sayings about how we "must love ourselves OR ELSE," it always perplexes me that they never seem to explain why. It simply seems to be taken as self-evident. And maybe it is for some people. If some people need to love themselves before they can love others or receive love from others, I'm not here to tell them they're wrong or that they shouldn't pursue that goal. That may be how it works for some people. 

My own view? It's complicated. And flexible. And personal.

As it happens, I wrote my MA theses (here 🤮) on "the ideal of unconditional love." It was rushed and terrible. It could use many more edits and less pompous convoluted writing. A lot of what I started unpacking there requires further development before it can be useful. I was also only 22-years old. But I did derive some wisdom from the experience, I think. 

Here is what I learned: the concept of "love" (like so many other concepts) isn't something obvious and inert. There's considerable debate about what it means: not only about how we experience it but how we should experience it and aspire to do as it directs/suggests. How we view it may also depend on such complex things as how we view our own and others' personhood, how we construct self vs. "other," and how we orient ourselves to whatever we view as "good." There may be a correct answer, but no one has authoritatively provided it. There is room for differing approaches (which is where autonomy comes in). We can perhaps learn from each other and have constructive discussions, but not simply dictate the answer for each other, IMO.

So with those caveats, my own tentatively evolving view (for myself)?

Love (whatever it may be) is not something rigid and narrow that can be experienced only one way. 

In my view, love can be experienced a variety of different ways. We can experience love in our relationship to ourselves and/or in relation to others. We can even experience it more abstractly and/or generally (love of humanity, love of community, love of life, love of knowledge, love of "goodness").

If we experience disruptions along one or more of the usual axes, it doesn't mean we are shut out from experiencing love and allowing it to flow in and through us in a way that works for us. 

Perhaps we've been so deeply hurt that turning that light towards ourselves is profoundly uncomfortable and maybe even dangerous for us either temporarily or permanently (especially if it's in a forceful pressured way). Perhaps we've had to erect a forcefield around ourselves, because the questions that are raised by efforts at self-love are too painful and disruptive right now. Perhaps we surrendered our sense of self-love to survive difficult things we've been through. Perhaps we focussed on love for others instead because that provided a way forward in the darkness, whereas love for self would have resulted in us needing and/or wanting to give up. Perhaps we were put in impossible situations where we had to choose between loving ourselves and loving others who meant too much to us for us to relinquish our care for them. The ways in which our self-relationship can be disrupted and fractured are complex. Just as the way we may rebuild afterwards may be (as I explored here).

But the good news, in my view, for me and some others I know at least, is that if self-love doesn't work for us, we can love in the ways that do work for us. Our love can be every bit as precious and real in doing so. 

With this in mind, rather than push towards self-love those for whom it doesn't work (does shaming and pressuring people into loving themselves ever work anyway?), we can acknowledge that there are many ways to love, and affirm the value in the love that others are able to experience. 

Self-love can still be cultivated in those who wish to pursue it (I'm sure many will and I applaud it), but it's a personal choice as to when or if to start down that sometimes very difficult path. 

In any event, I did a previous twitter thread on my thoughts about an approach that may work for me, and rather than try to re-invent it, I'll simply post (a somewhat edited/expanded version of) it here:

If you have difficulty loving yourself, but no problem loving others, one thing that *may* work is to love your own capacity for love and its manifestations/activity. I can’t currently "love myself" the same way I can love others but maybe I can love the caring itself. It’s the best part of me in action--not me as object. 

I personally find most of the talk of self-love problematic anyway in how it constructs what is self vs what is other. It just doesn’t work that way for me. In loving others, I can love myself more readily because that action aligns with my values and my sense of beauty, and it's loving what is active and expansive in myself rather than simply loving myself as an object within narrowly constructed boundaries. 

It’s okay to have our own ways of valuing what’s most important to us in our experience of ourselves. We don’t have to accept others’ ways as our starting point. What we most prize in ourselves is ours to choose even if it’s actually goodness that is outwardly directed not inner-directed. 

So I may not be able to direct that love inward in the same way, but I can love that manifestation of what I value and who I am and can shut out all the voices commanding “love yourself.” They don’t work for me. 

That capacity to love those around us is something that can be tended to, cherished and maintained without all the sticky thorny questions that “self-love” as object can involve for some of us. Being made an object may be what damaged us in the first place. 

Anyway, just my own reflections. Sometimes the way these things are constructed doesn’t work for all of us so internal reflection about what may work and what does reflect our values and needs can be important. 

Telling me to love myself as much or more than I love others reinforces a dichotomy that set me apart from others as an object & disconnected me from my basic humanity. And was weaponized against me. Choosing to love more expansively can be gentler & less divisive. 

It’s like my trauma isolated and separated me from others to target me for shame and damage. The solution for me isn’t to focus on myself in that same disconnected conception. It’s to rebel against it and simply love in the ways I still can. And to cherish/value that love without demanding that it do and be more to count as real. 

Me not “loving myself” doesn’t necessarily mean I’m doing it wrong. It means I’m doing what works for me. It’s a form of self-love in its own way too, though I wouldn’t call it that because it reinforces the self/other distinction 

But I totally get that others--if they can--may need and/or wish to focus on the self within those boundaries and create safety there. That’s not possible or palatable for me personally but it makes sense too. When we’ve been ruptured there’s more than one way to rebuild & move on.

It's the beauty of being human. There are so many ways to adapt and survive. Let's not force one narrative on everyone, please. 


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. 

I am very grateful to have received a 2019 "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: 


Thursday, February 18, 2021

"Us v. Them"

 I originally spoke up about trauma and mental health in the legal profession because I noted a dangerous trend in my profession and others of constantly assuming that members of those professional spaces aren't like the people "out there" who can be traumatized and experience mental health consequences. In the prevailing discourse, professionals who deal with traumatized people are spoken about as if they couldn't possibly have their own trauma. I raised a concern about that kind of "othering" discourse that had harmed me, and also, I believed, harmed those whom we are supposed to help (by wrongly assuming that they couldn't be among us, that they couldn't enter our spaces, that they are inherently "other").

I wrote about that here (regarding my own profession): 

That said, there's another danger. When the movement to recognize the lived experience of professionals becomes an end in itself, the voices of lived experience trying to explain what it is like to be on the other side of the divide can get erased. The reasoning goes, explicitly or implicitly, "Stop telling us about your lived experience, as if it's something we need to learn from. We have our own lived experience too that we are embracing; therefore, we don't need to learn from you. We've got it covered. Stop forcing an us vs. them narrative!" 

I'm not okay with that either for a few reasons that I'll explain.

Although people with professional status can have their own trauma and can carry that in ways that deserve recognition and support, there are also privileges, power, and other biases that go with that status that can't be ignored.That lived experience counts and deserves recognition, but it doesn't mean the voice of "lived experience" is covered, and no further listening or learning is needed. 

For instance, I know what it's like to experience a substantial amount of trauma, but if I ever had to navigate the legal system with that trauma, it would not necessarily be the same experience as someone with that same trauma who lacked my years of knowledge, training and sense of comfort/belonging there. That's not to say I might not have a difficult experience in many of the same ways others lacking my training would, and maybe even some unique challenges. But I can't assume that my own experience will be like someone else's.

For one thing, someone who chooses to enter a particular profession is more likely to see some value in the way that profession tends to approach things, which is already a bias in itself. They're more likely to see that profession as having something important to offer. While their own experiences may remain a touchstone of authenticity (and even lead them to challenge some practices and biases within the profession), the biases offered by their professional role and education may interfere with them seeing other types of lived experience as clearly. 

More generally, no one's lived experience can erase or speak for others. Many, if not most, of us have some privileges that others lack. Even without special privilege, we all have a different perspective, and different needs, histories, etc. Humility is called for in all situations, especially when we occupy a position of power in relation to others. 

So what about the "us vs. them" dynamic that I've already recognized can be so harmful? Should it be discarded altogether?  

In my view, absolutely not.

Whether we like it or not, when we occupy a role that involves power over others, we need to recognize the inherent "othering"and division that are involved by the power and vulnerability that in fact exist. While excessive and unwarranted othering needs to be discarded, so we can minimize that power dynamic and its harms, we nevertheless, in my view, still need to recognize the inherent "otherness" to which the more vulnerable party is subject, which will be exacerbated if we aren't careful to humbly examine our role in it. 

We are not similarly situated when we step into those power-differentiated roles. Humble recognition of those differences is essential to avoid doing harm. An ability to relate across those differences is key, so we must always be attentive to any excessive othering that occurs, but in my view this must always be accompanied by an honest and realistic recognition of that divide enacted by that power differential. 

In any event, there is no one "lived experience" voice, even among those who are very similarly situated. Humans are complicated, as I described here

There is always otherness, which need not be a bad thing. When approached humbly, it can be a magical and wondrous thing to learn about the ways in which those around us are not like us. "Otherness" is not inherently bad and should not be constructed as such. 

Our own lived experience may provide all kinds of insights, but isn't some elevated platform or box to tick that ensures we understand everyone else who possesses it. I've written about this before and will again, but the bottom line is I think welcoming lived experience perspectives within professional spaces is important because we should have diversity and inclusion of a broad range of experiences within professional spaces. Those lived experience perspectives can offer value by providing a check against harmful inaccurate stereotypes that might otherwise proliferate. They can thereby introduce greater humility and expanded insight into possible viewpoints and experiences, but never a replacement for listening to those who are directly subject to the exercise of that profession's power generally and/or in any given instance. We will never be able to include all perspectives and should never deceive ourselves into believing that we have done so.

In my view, my lived experience is there to expand my own insight about things I've witnessed or experienced directly, but also to inform and expand my own humility about those and other phenomena. That humility isn't like a hat I can throw on only in some situations. In my view it requires ongoing examination and practice. It's a way of seeing the world and my relationship to those around me. It applies not only in professional situations but also amidst the power dynamics of everyday social space in complex ways.

I happen to have quite a lot of lived experience of past trauma, poverty and dysfunction within my own history (yay, complex PTSD!) which I feel has helped me develop a more nuanced view than might otherwise have been possible of the differing ways in which trauma can impact someone (because I do indeed contain multitudes) both from my own experiences and what I've observed over a lifetime, and from the experiences of those close to me, almost all of whom (in my early life) were visibly suffering the effects of trauma. 

But, despite all that trauma, I commit to always also recognize that part of my lived experience is of attaining three university degrees, becoming a lawyer,  and being able to move as if I belong in spaces that terrify and intimidate others (in addition to other privileges I draw on within those spaces without even thinking about it). Those are parts of my lived experience; I need to recognize them too.

So no I never want to get rid of my awareness of how "us v. them" in fact operates in spaces I occupy. I pledge to minimize that divide in whatever way I can, but pretending it doesn't exist is not the answer. Shutting it out just allows the biases, privileges and power differentials to operate unchecked with a cloak of invisibility and inexorability that I'm not okay with fuelling. Collapsing one side of the divide to pretend the divide isn't there is itself a great harm.

I have lived experience, you have lived experience, but when we step into a seat of power and speak from that role, humility needs to be something we actively and consciously practice. If we don't acknowledge the reality of how "us v. them' in fact unavoidably operates, we will feed it.

I refuse to fuel it in that way. I refuse to acquiesce when I see other professionals doing it (to me or others).

No amount of lived experience excuses us from the need to listen to others about the impact of our actions and the impact of the systems in which we operate. 

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. 

I am very grateful to have received a 2019 "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, February 2, 2021

"Hierarchy of Suffering"

This is a tricky one, so bear with me. 

These are just my initial thoughts on a complex sensitive issue. I stand to be corrected if I'm missing some nuance here (and to correct myself if I later have additional thoughts).

A common saying these days is "There is no hierarchy of suffering." I agree with it. There's something important in this. Everyone's suffering is absolutely valid. No one gets to tell someone else that the suffering they're experiencing doesn't count. No one's suffering should be discounted on the basis that someone else has it worse. I also hope no one will feel a need to dismiss their own suffering this way (which is a common feeling many trauma survivors have--mine doesn't count because it wasn't as bad as others who had it "worse"). 

It is a critical starting point from which we should never stray.

But like other platitudes, it has an icky side: when used as a means to silence those who've been through severe trauma and/or have obstacles in the way of their healing that others don't. When it's used to keep them from speaking about what makes their experiences different from others who may be speaking. To erase all suffering that occurs outside the margins of what is typically visible on the basis that it's all the same. 

Of course, there's such a thing as different degrees, complexity, treatability of suffering. We don't even need to compare our suffering to others to know this. We've all suffered in a variety of different ways in our lives, some of which had a greater impact on us than others. Some which resolved more readily. We certainly would never say all physical injuries/conditions are the same. A tension headache that comes on periodically but is relieved with advil is not the same as a brain tumour that causes constant severe suffering and a dramatically shortened life. (note: I have no lived experience of either of these conditions so I apologize if I've missed some nuance here)

So what's really happening here? What are we getting at? Everyone's pain matters. And we know our own pain best. If something hurts you, no one else gets to invalidate it by saying it's disproportionate to whatever its apparent causes are or whatever your current circumstances are. Pain is pain. And there won't always be an obvious source. The pain doesn't need to "fit" a cause. It is valid all on its own. 

But of course there can be differences. Repeated severe trauma (especially in childhood) can have profound effects that can substantially increase our risk for all kinds of other types of illness and suffering, including early death. And we deserve to have the reality of it taken seriously. We deserve to have people available to treat it who are competent to address its complexity and severity--who understand what makes it different. Not just dismissed as unnecessary to hear about or specifically address because "it's all the same." 

That said, it's not something to be enforced by silencing other people's pain. It's about listening to people and validating what's actually happened to them and what they in fact experienced as a result. If someone says, "my suffering is immense" then we don't look to what happened to them and say "that's not a good enough cause." The causal relationship is not always straightforward. Nor is there any reason why it should have to be. Pain is pain. It doesn't require further justification. It deserves compassion, regardless of how it may have been caused, or whether a cause can even be ascertained. 

But the problem with insisting that there are generally no differing degrees/types/severity, is (1) It's an absurd and invalidating form of erasure when it dispenses with the need to listen to what people actually endured; (2) It conceals actual hierarchies that otherwise operate. 

When used to conceal and reinforce existing hierarchies, this type of approach says "Well, we all have trauma and there's no hierarchy of trauma, so you need to buck up like the rest of us, and recover through the things that work for us." It erases critical differences which isn't okay either. It says "You are not allowed to share the aspects of your suffering that are unique and different--the fact that for you suffering was a constant theme rather than an occasional experience, the fact that it's exacerbated by ongoing injury from systemic racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. to which others aren't exposed." It's all just the same; therefore, we don't need to listen to people's experiences. And in fact when they try to tell us, we silence them and say no you may not speak about the ways in which your experience of suffering isn't reflected by the prevailing discourse because "there is no hierarchy of suffering."

So then whose pain becomes the norm? And whose becomes invisible? When there's "no hierarchy of suffering" what gets to be visible? IMO, all too often it's the experiences and realities that otherwise are dominant. The ones that are already promoted as 'normal" by existing hierarchies.

There are in fact vastly different ways in which people can suffer, all of which matter and count, but of course they can be different. Repeated trauma from which there is no escape tends to have different effects beyond single incident trauma. This is something we know and will hear if we listen to people who have been through it (as well as to science). That said, other forms of suffering (including single incident trauma) can also have enormous effects all on their own, which we know both from listening to people who've endured it and listening to science that listens to those people. 

So the only way to know the type, degree and severity of suffering is to listen to people and believe them. My suffering is immense. I've been through a lot, but I'll (1) never silence someone who has been through "less" but experiences the same degree of suffering from it; and yet at the same time, I'll (2) never silence someone who has been through things I haven't--e.g., repeated trauma in addition to ongoing systemic racism--by saying it's "all the same." 

The answer is to hear it all and be prepared to have nuanced validating discussions about it. And no we don't have to "grade it," but we don't get to silence it either or absurdly pretend that it's all the same and that all kinds of vulnerabilities and inequalities don't play a role. If we silence it, we won't be able to redress it. And there are indeed inequalities that need to be redressed. We can't use a language of "sameness" to wave those away. There are things happening we need to stop. 

We can be open to both similarities and differences, without a pre-determined "hierarchy" but also without a dismissive erasure that says "well it's all the same--so who needs to hear from you--we can just extrapolate from our own experiences"(in a way that reinforces existing hierarchies and absolves those in the mainstream discourse from having to hear from those whose experiences tend to be marginalized/ignored).

The answer in my view: listen carefully and attentively to lived experience (and whatever science flows from genuinely taking it into account in an inclusive way). Don't silence it in either direction by declaring it "too little" "too much" or "all the same." Just listen.

As a survivor of repeated trauma, for whom an experience of safety was often the exception not the rule at critical points in my life, my experiences are indeed different in some crucial ways from what I hear many others sharing. I don't expect there to be a grading system and I would never silence someone or discount their suffering just because what they've been through is different from what I have, but I expect to be heard about the impact that has had on me even if I have to use strong terms to adequately convey it, even if I have to say that my experiences aren't reflected in what I hear others saying (not as a matter of judgment or comparison, but as a matter of fact). At the same time, there are many ways in which my suffering was lessened by the way the world accommodated me, as it may not have done for others (e.g., it wasn't compounded by experiencing the racism minoritized people have to endure on an ongoing basis), so I don't assume that people who've experienced something different than I have are all in "the same" place. My complex trauma doesn't relieve me of the responsibility of listening to and learning from the complex trauma of a residential school survivor, for instance. I have trauma too, but it's not "the same." It doesn't relieve me from the responsibility of learning about what others have had to endure and the impact it's had on them.

I listen. And I try to learn. From both similarities and differences. With an openness and non-defensiveness about both (as a goal, though none of us can ever be perfect at this).

In my view, we can benefit from the recognition of both the "sameness" (our "common humanity") and the differences (arising from our own experiences). We need to stop erasing these in the name of some platitude in either direction. If we don't acknowledge the ways in which we are similar, then we miss out on connection and solidarity. If we don't acknowledge the ways in which our suffering can be different, then we miss out on validation, accommodation and inclusion.

We can do both. It's all valid. It's all very real and very human, but it's not all "the same."

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. 

I am very grateful to have received a 2019 "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: 

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Asymmetry of Shame

Shame is a major symptom of complex PTSD.  For me it's the biggest.

Do I love myself? Do I have confidence in myself? Am I at peace with myself? Do I feel secure in my connections to others and in my self-relationship? Do I not care what others think of me? Do I not feel ashamed of the many ways in which I fall short of society's standards (e.g. physical appearance)?

Nope. Nope. Nope. 🤷

Sometimes I try and I'm really good at working around this in many ways, but at my core, I feel wounded, insecure, unlovable, lacking worth etc. It's not something amenable to reason or simply "choosing" to see otherwise. It's deep within me.

The life that's led me here and the experiences that traumatized me forcibly imprinted those messages within me, and then further reinforced them again and again in multiple ways and layers that I'm not going to itemize here. The message that I lacked worth was not only repeatedly imprinted on me in ways that were both highly specific as well as general, but also in ways that involved coercion and trauma to seal them in extra forcefully.

The very essence of my traumas for me is the way they kept reinforcing that message: I'm not valuable. I don't count. I don't count to other people. I don't count to the universe. I don't publicly share the things that happened to imprint this conclusion on me (I've rarely even shared them privately) but I maintain that it's not even irrational for me to feel impelled towards that conclusion as a result. 

My feelings of shame are deep AF. The only way I will every fully uproot them is to completely excavate and heal my trauma in all its layers which quite frankly is unlikely to happen anytime soon if ever. Nor am I willing to wait for it before I can be permitted to be a full member of society.

In complicated ways that I won't share here, my personal shame helped me survive from a very early date. It's not ideal but it's what I had. I was ready to give up and die, but the sense that I wasn't important, that I had to keep going for some purpose beyond myself was the soil from which I was able to keep growing when otherwise my sense of (lacking) self-worth would have led me to surrender. 

And no it's not enough to simply recognize it as an adaptation that's outlived its purpose and cast it aside. There's something existentially real and valuable in how I moved forward that I'm not prepared to surrender for platitudes and affirmations. There's a real complex, painful and difficult problem that needs to be substantively addressed for me rather than set magically simplistically aside. 

That said, I'm also a person who has been surrounded by other people's trauma since forever. And I've seen how people externalized their shame in a way that damaged other people. Whose self-blame caused them to also shame and blame others to whom similar things happened.

So I made a vow early on not to do that: which I've consciously managed for as long as I can remember. All my shame and self-blame will be directed only at myself. I can't eradicate it. That's not possible and insisting that I do so will cause even greater damage. But I also won't conceive of it in any way that leads me to be less compassionate towards others. So I funnel it all towards myself. Not ideal. Not pleasant. But I choose it given the unpalatable options that have been available to me.

So why don't I count? Why am I inherently terrible? It can't be because of qualities I share with others. It can't be because of particular features of my experiences (that others may experience too). It has to simply be because there is something inarticulably wrong about me. The beauty is it means my own shame doesn't lead me to shame others, but it also means I don't gain an illusion of control. I can't distance myself from it. It follows me no matter what I do. I could cure the deadliest diseases. I could be kind and loving to all around me. And it would still be there. Something inexorably wrong with me just for being me. 

So when I feel that my real-world flaws are fatal, but other people with those same characteristics are beautiful and worthy of care, why is that? Why do I feel shame for something I don't think should be imposed as a source of shame in others? Because I'm already so lacking worth to begin with. I can't afford to have flaws. My only hope is to be "perfect" to have any chance of others overlooking all the innate badness in me.

Because I have to be perfect to make up for being me. And even if I'm perfect, it still won't be good enough and I'll be forever terrified, but it's the best that I can do.

Yet of course the inner pervasive sense of badness doesn't limit itself to generalities. It seeps out and makes me feel shame in very particular ways all over the place. It makes me feel susceptible to self-hatred from all kinds of causes, including those that had previously been weaponized against me, and are frequently weaponized against people like me by society.

Shame about our bodies. Shame about our trauma. Shame about not being productive enough. Shame about being needy. Shame about being damaged. Shame about taking up social space. Shame about so many things.

And maybe worst of all for me shame about my shame. 

"Be confident." "Be positive." "Don't succumb to diet-culture-related shame." "Don't let what others think about you affect you." ("or else you have less worth" (implicit message) "Love yourself or you won't be worthy of love:" a message I unpacked and rejected here). 

I know my shame is "wrong" not because I know I don't deserve it, but because I feel deep care for others who share those attributes and experiences. I know those other people who share those attributes and experiences don't deserve it. I know the only one who deserves it (for reasons I don't claim to understand) is me.

My shame is decidedly asymmetrical.

I would never judge someone else for the attributes that often give rise to shame in me. I know my shame is mine.

I can't wave a magic wand and cast off my sense of shame. But the most "healing" thing I can do is also to try not to feel compelled to carry extra shame for my shame. My self-audit of my shame to ensure I don't extend it to others has led me to this conclusion: one of the most exclusionary forces is the double-victimization of people who've been forced to experience shame in the first place. First we suffer the initial damage that makes deep-rooted shame and/or self-hatred unavoidable for some of us. And then, perhaps worst of all, from the people who supposedly "help" and "care" we get an even heavier dose of shame about our shame. "You are wrong and bad to internalize those messages that have been forcibly and repeatedly imprinted on you--to not rise above them." 

And my self-audit leads me to reject that as a valid source of shame too. I can't simply decide not to carry it. It hurts me. But I reject it, the same way I reject the validity of the other sources of shame, even though I can't let it go in myself.

Dear everyone who tells people that they "shouldn't" feel shame, that they "must" learn to love themselves, in a tone that in any way suggests that they are somehow "bad," "deficient" and "less valuable" if they care about the messages that have been weaponized against them (about self-image, etc.), I reject your message too (at least that aspect of it).

I reject that shame. It's the closest I can come to moving towards "healing" right now by rejecting the extra layers that the "positivity police" heap on me and others like me.

I don't share my personal experiences here, but if I did I would challenge others to tell me how it shouldn't affect me deeply. How I should just magically not care about my negative body image when my body-image and insecurities about it were weaponized against me in ways that affected my brain and body on a level that goes beyond my ability to just magically wave away. Maybe some people can overcome it, but not all of us can readily do so, and I reject the blame for that (even though I still carry it). I won't endorse shaming as the proper response to that. 

It's one of the most toxic damaging bases of exclusion in my view: "we don't exclude you because of x, y, z: we exclude you because you let those things affect you. Therefore, we're the real heroes for rejecting x, y, z, and you're the bad one for internalizing it." It's an immense privilege to think it can be that simple. A privilege I don't have the benefit of getting to share.

Nope. Nope. Nope. If you can't care about people in all their confusing asymmetrical wounded-ness with compassion for the paradoxical shame they can't help but carry, there's no moral superiority there. And that's a hill I'm prepared to die on.

As long as we aren't extending our shame to others (which can take work for which I'm prepared to accept responsibility), we deserve compassion and understanding. Not more exclusion and scorn. Until we allow a safe space for that complicated shame to be allowed to exist without judgment, "healing" will never be safe for some of us (at least not for me).

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. 

I am very grateful to have received a 2019 "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: 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Introducing Resilience Overdose Syndrome

I've written a lot about how I feel psychiatry fails many people with complex trauma. Although I've written very critically (in this post) about one sentence of Judith Herman's "Trauma and Recovery," her book remains essential reading when it comes to complex trauma and proposed a new diagnosis of Complex PTSD. In fact, it's my favourite psychiatry book of all time. I'm not going to discuss all the many concerns I have with psychiatry's failure to respond appropriately in this post. 

All I know is that it's inexcusable to me that all these years have gone by and psychiatry has largely continued to fail to deal with complex trauma in a meaningful responsive way given the concerns that have been raised. But that's a topic for another day. Today I'm just doing me. Psychiatry has not provided a safe system within which I can move towards healing and/or coping. But I need to make sense of my experiences, so I decided to create my own. If it resonates with some people, great. If not, it can be just for me. But I'm reclaiming my right to characterize the essence of my own suffering. 

It's not easy because being a human who is both vulnerable yet also self-determining is super-complicated as I wrote here. But here's what I've settled on as my preferred characterization that most accurately captures what I suffer from: I have "Resilience Overdose Syndrome." (Note: I'm bad with terminology so I'm not sure about the "syndrome" part. I just know it's not a "disorder" or "disease." I'm open to changing that term.) 

[By way of context, for some of my mixed feelings about the concept of "resilience" please see here and here]

Why Resilience Overdose Syndrome? I really want to write lots and lots about it because I have many thoughts, but today is just the introduction of the concept. I'll flesh it out later and welcome input. I've been physically ill lately so I can't aim for comprehensive and perfect posts (when I can manage to write at all) but I don't want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good (or the good to be the enemy of the passably adequate, lol). So here goes.

 -Resilience Overdose Syndrome captures the fact that resilience is both what enabled us to survive the original adversity/trauma we endured, but also highlights the damage to us of being required to be so damn "resilient" for so long. Being required to be resilient in an ongoing way is itself an injury. Resilience is both a blessing and a curse. We don't need more of it. We need to stop being required to have so much of it. We need spaces in which we can relax and lay it down. We need to be able to say "f*** resilience" and have people understand. We need to know that we can be gloriously non-resilient sometimes and still be okay--that a lapse in resilience won't potentially cost us everything because we don't have the luxury others without this condition/situation do of ever being able to just count on the systems and people around us to support us consistently and appropriately. 

-It also highlights a critical point that for many of us the actual harm is ongoing and the original damage is in fact continuing. This is not about us improperly continuing to react to a trauma that is in "the past." The thing(s) that happened to us to cause the original injury may indeed be in the past but the damage is accruing daily as we have to navigate a world that fails to protect us just as it did then, fails to provide conditions for us to be appreciated, included, and healed, and fails to allow us to move through various social spaces with the same understanding and accommodation that so many others can. A world that fails to meaningfully address the harms we suffered and provide truly safe inclusive spaces for those who've been through them. The need for "resilience" is ongoing for many of us. So the damage is continuing. For me that damage isn't materially distinct from the original trauma. The original trauma told me I don't count. I'm not a person whose needs matter. Having to then be required to live in a world that sends the same message is in fact a continuation of the trauma and I'm not wrong to feel it's ongoing. (Note: this won't necessarily be true of everyone who has been traumatized--perhaps some do find that sense of fit afterwards. I'm simply describing my own situation but using "we" because I feel very confident I'm not the only one here). 

-It highlights that what needs to be done to "heal" us isn't about something that needs to be prescribed to us. It's something those who treat and interact with us need to prescribe to themselves (individually as well as to the systems and environments in which we interact). I'm not saying that via the miracle of human endurance (and, yes, resilience) some people might not through a combination of circumstance, strength, and good fortune find ways to situate themselves better so they no longer have to be so resilient, thereby healing themselves. I'm not saying that it may not help us to learn from those shining examples of "resilience" in case what worked for them may resonate with some others and increase their chances of achieving peak transformative resilience. I'm saying those individual accomplishments will never be THE answer, and they're not what our focus should be. What people with my condition need isn't increased resilience but decreased need for resilience in the first place. It's not something we can necessarily always do for ourselves. It needs to be a team effort. So the question isn't how affected people can change so they can heal. It's how we collectively and individually change the conditions in which people interact so they won't need to be so damn resilient anymore. 

So the answer isn't (only) what the doctor should prescribe us, but what the doctor (and the systems within which they work) should do themselves. "You have resilience overdose syndrome. I prescribe to myself and to the system a more flexible and understanding medical system (and social environment) so you have less of a need to be resilient in the future." In the meantime, those of us with resilience overdose syndrome may need to prescribe to ourselves a non-engagement or limited engagement with systems and people that make our condition worse: that impose further damage requiring even more resilience from us. 

None of what I've said is totally new. Others have made similar points and I'll say more in the future but this is just me explaining why I've chosen this label for myself, whether medical professionals acknowledge it or not (spoiler alert: they don't). It's not simple. There's nuance and complexity that I'll explore later. It aligns to some degree with what a lot of "trauma-informed" folx are already saying (although I find many still end up lapsing into old ways of thinking that don't work for me; I'll elaborate on this later with my concerns about the framing of concepts like "emotion dysregulation" etc.--that I feel are corrected by my personal framework). 

Anyway that's just a tiny sneak preview of my new way of self-identifying. In the meantime, maybe 2021 can be the year we can safely declare (if we wish to): f*** resilience! 

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. 

I am very grateful to have received a 2019 "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, December 28, 2020

"Healing" Space (from Psychiatry)

Imagine a version of science that in conquering a subject matter and reducing it to a set of simple equations and "truths" inherently harms, if not destroys, it.

That's my personal experience of what currently seems to be mainstream psychiatry: as someone who has  has lived in (justifiable and rational for me) fear of and flight from it for as long as I can remember. 

It can be true that what psychiatry offers may be helpful and accurate in some contexts and circumstances, yet also that it is woefully inadequate and must be used with incredible caution, humility and restraint in others.That it's exactly the lifesaving measure that some people need and a dehumanizing violation for others if applied rigidly on its own terms with no humility about its role. It can make the suffering of some more visible and relatable, while erasing and dehumanizing the suffering of others. None of this is simple.

I know my perspective is not everyone's experience of psychiatry. For some, it fits and works. For whatever reason, the equations and "truths" it offers work for them, steal nothing away from them, and the process doesn't reenact trauma for them (thereby exacerbating the very harms they needed support for in the first place).

I have no interest in undermining that or taking any helpful tool away from anyone. And of course psychiatry has other functions (apart from healing for healing's sake) that I'm not going to address here. Bottom line: I'm more than prepared to acknowledge that it likely is a helpful tool for *some* (not my place to pre-emptively quantify how many or what proportion--we'd have to actually listen to people for that).

But not for me. And here's the thing. As a rule, my trauma and I don't "fit." It's complex and very much shaped by many of the complicated experiences I had as an "outsider." 

Psychiatry isn't a value-neutral endeavour. I'm not going to argue this point because it should be painfully obvious. Nowhere is it written in some objectively discernible language what the best way to spend our limited time on earth is and what counts as a "healthy" version of that life. Value judgments (influenced by culture/gender and other norms) are at the heart of a lot of those questions, as well as complicated metaphysical questions with potential spiritual implications. Philosophers have been debating all these points since forever, and continue to do so. Literature continues to grapple with them too. We generally aim to give people space to decide how they feel about them.

Not to mention how what counts as a behavioural/psychological excess or deficiency may be very context-dependent. Some people have far more space for their impulses to be seamlessly enacted into reality because they happen to have a lot of privilege and their way of being in the world "fits" with society's norms. I could say so much more about that, but it's not the topic of this post (future post entitled "mismatch" will follow someday).

I'm not saying there are no truths. I'm not saying science and its methods may not play a role in that (although there's room for debate about the role "science" plays and what the scope/limits of "science" and its ways of knowing are generally, which I needn't get into here). I'm saying for me at least the ability to form my own views, to have autonomy, to have space to reflect, weigh, consider and choose what's persuasive for me to try is absolutely essential. Taking that away reinforces the harm for which I was seeking help. 

Here's what it comes down to for me:  an essential component of the harm of trauma for me was the damage to my autonomy and dignity, both in the experiences themselves and the way it situated me in relation to others who don't understand, allow space/visibility for it, and accordingly reenact it. It was invasive, coercive, and dehumanizing. And it intensified the deepest existential questions for me (some of  the most horrible existential paradoxes and painful realities are imprinted in my awareness in an especially intense way).

I'm no longer in the situations that produced my trauma in the first place; however, there are few things more invasive, coercive and dehumanizing to me than having those core questions that were made even more intense by my traumatic experiences taken away from me and used by someone else (no less an entire system) to impose their own answers on me and deem me "ill" or "non-compliant" if I don't accept their highly debatable answers and approaches--if my choice of how to engage is not respected--to what extent to expose myself to someone else's "assessment" for instance--to what extent I'm permitted to decline to answer invasively personal questions, or choose to do so only when I feel safe and comfortable.

The most critical antidote for my trauma, and an absolute precondition to me being able to safely engage with anything potentially "helpful" or "healing" is space. Space for me to be human. To be free to weigh and consider difficult existential and value-laden questions in the way that works for me, in a way that accounts for what I've experienced of the world, not just what the prevailing narrative is. Space to breathe and be human with my own choices, thoughts, feelings and attitudes. To be irrational and say no. To be a bit reckless and say yes. To pause and be stuck sometimes and say "I don't know." And to sit with those feelings for as long as feels right, safe and comfortable for me. And to only move forward when I feel safe.

Yet psychiatry doesn't seem to present itself as opinion, but as some kind of independently objectively established fact. It doesn't seem to leave space for my own answers to my own questions. It invades, suffocates, and restrains by removing a lot of those questions from genuine consideration: by centring itself, its own answers, methods and ways. 

For me, what I need is the right kind of space within which I can be permitted the autonomy, dignity and safety that were taken away from me in the past--not a supposedly "correct objective answer" that adds even more coercion, erasure, and damage to what I've already endured: that takes away the one safe space I had to potentially call my own: my own mind, my own attitudes/feelings, my creativity, my own attempts to make sense of what I've been through and what it means for how I choose to move forward. Of course it's complicated because even this space often doesn't feel free because trauma invaded it, but it's still mine at least sometimes and in some ways. The last thing I need is my last refuge (however imperfect it may be) taken from me. Rather I need any "helper" to de-centre themselves and whatever "system" or "answers" work for them. And join me in helping to assist me in finding my own answers and my own experience of that beautifully buffering zone of safety: my place to explore what it means for me to be human in a profoundly imperfect world. 

 So speaking only for myself: I have no interest in any pre-packaged answers or systems. I welcome tools, offerings and suggestions. But I need space. I can't be healed without it. 

Am I "anti-psychiatry" then? Yes and no and maybe. I'm opposed to anything systematically cloaking itself in neutrality and objectivity to cover over deep philosophical questions that are anything but neutral. They're value-laden and how we answer many of them can very much depend on how we are situated and whether we "fit."  So yeah psychiatry in that sense is something I'm deeply not okay with. 

Yet as a tool that can humbly help people who choose and want its assistance, I'm all for it. As a potential set of tools that knows its own limits, it can be lifesaving for some people. I applaud those success stories and want them to continue. But its value depends for me on its humility. There's a huge difference between someone who says "Here's something you may wish to try" and lets me decide to take it or leave it vs. someone who says "Here is the answer." Psychiatry for me to be beneficial must realize and embrace the ways in which it is NOT pure science--it straddles the border between mind and body with all the philosophical paradoxes and uncertainty that may invoke for some of us. It has a set of science-y tools at the ready for those who find them helpful, but should (to be potentially helpful to me) be ready to simply be there and allow space for those who need to sit with those uncertainties in their own unique ways that can't readily be reduced to a scientific equation, protocol or procedure. 

Accepting a potential need for space for uncertainty/paradoxes/conflicting possible answers to the biggest questions can be part of what's required for some of our healing. Space to not be comprehensively assessed, diagnosed and prescribed (what to do and feel). Yet I don't see psychiatry handling this well. In my view embracing the limits and inherent uncertainty of its foundations rather than trying to be a science exactly like the others could make psychiatry so much better. It could have all the benefits of the science-informed aspects (possible tools) without the dehumanizing, coercive reductionism/erasure. 

So basically my question is this: what if the essence of healing for some of us includes the ability to experience a collaborative space where paradoxes and uncertainties are held and endured with gentleness? Where we get to decide how quickly and deeply to engage and explore? 

And what if psychiatry invades that space, thereby reenacting the very same trauma that stole our ability to safely experience it in the first place? How does psychiatry handle that? Does it destroy the very thing we need help with? For me, speaking only for myself, it does and for me it's inexcusable. But it wouldn't have to if it could learn to accept (and perhaps prescribe to itself) a large dose of humility.

I'm glad the tools and the answers psychiatry gives help some people, but that's no excuse to exclude those of us who are harmed from the conversation just because we complicate the issue for those who are helped. Just because it fits some people's experience doesn't mean it's balanced. Something that reenacts trauma for many isn't justified simply because it works for some. It can be held onto as a tool for the people who wish it without its conquering assertion of supremacy tearing down those necessary tentative gentle spaces for those of us who need them.

My concerns aren't limited to psychiatry though it's the most oppressively invasively space-eliminating force that I've encountered. I'd say the same to many "evidence-based" therapy modalities that presume to have the answers. As well as a lot of folk wisdom, societal norms, overbearing well-wishers,  or anything that threatens to take that space (autonomy/dignity) away.

Being human is inherently complicated. There are a lot of deep painful mysterious profoundly personal existential questions we all may sometimes need or choose to cope with or flee from in the way that works for us. The differences in how we do so aren't a problem to be conquered so that the one "true" answer or approach that works for all can be enacted. 

Embracing uncertainty can enable us to embrace diversity, autonomy, and dignity of those who don't "fit" the way others do--often the very same people who've seen the worst that humanity and society have to offer. 

There are all sorts of complexities in the above. I'm addressing it only from a perspective of healing (assuming the person isn't harming other people in their lives--for whom "healing" may become about more than just themselves in ways that could get complicated).

So those are just some rambling reflections for today. Not really even a full post. I may delete and reformulate later. And these are subjects I've already written about so if I say anything here that sounds outrageously different than what I've said in the past, the past writing is likely more accurate...

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 2019 "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: