Monday, October 12, 2020

Attitudes About Gratitude

 It's Thanksgiving here in Canada. I'm too sick (with a physical ailment that hopefully will pass soon) to celebrate my usual way (LOTS of food), so I'm just left with all the uncomfortable Thanksgiving feelings.

Thanksgiving is one of my least favourite holidays. Aside from the other problems with it that are not the focus of this post or my lived experience, I find the messaging that often accompanies it very triggering: the idea that we should be telling people how to feel and what attitude to have about their experiences--sometimes in the name of "healing" and sometimes in the name of moral obligation (and sometimes we merge the two in questionable ways as if healing itself without regard to context is a moral obligation).

Gratitude can be very healthy. I'm often extremely grateful to people for their kindness and other good qualities. Even though I lead a very isolated existence these days, there are so many people I appreciate and I'm so grateful that they exist in the world. I also appreciate the wonders of nature and the magical healing power of baby bats and rescue dogs and cats. Further,  I'm aware that I have many privileges I'm constantly trying to be mindful of.

But I also have a lot to grieve: to be hurt and upset about. And it can be particularly hard to *feel* grateful for the things that still remain in my life when I'm also conscious of all that I've lost and all the struggles/pain/fear I have to manage on a daily basis. Especially on a day when everyone else around me is beautifully and lovingly singing the praises in their own lives of having those very things that I've lost. Not just shallow material things but good human things that I've lost the ability to experience. (I watch as others celebrate family while I experience isolation, for example). 

And as for my privilege, I absolutely do recognize that there are many advantages that I'm fortunate to have. I try to cultivate this awareness in every way that I can. Perhaps this awareness of the advantages I have should make me feel "grateful" or adopt an attitude consistent with gratitude. And sometimes it does. But in the moments of recognizing my privilege what I most often feel is sadness. I feel it's equally important morally if not more so to be able to sit with the complicated and uncomfortable feelings that awareness raises rather than focus solely on gratitude. In those moments, I'm not happy that I have what others lack. I'm sad that others lack it and there are all kinds of complicated feelings that go with that. Morally, I'm not sure why "gratitude" is the best response to that awareness, but that's a complex question, which could perhaps involve a nuanced framing of what gratitude means. The point is it's not straightforward especially when the condition I struggle with has existential and moral dimensions (having been faced with some of the worst and scariest things--being conscious of the bad things in the world whether they're happening to me or someone else makes me feel many things, but gratitude that it's someone else not me isn't top of the list. Mainly I often just feel sad and helpless and wish I could do something to change it).

I'm not trashing the idea of gratitude or its practice. I have no doubt that it can be very helpful and can be integrated into a highly moral way of being for many if not most people. There may also be ways to define gratitude that aren't about a feeling that may be less problematic for people like me. I'm just saying that  I don't accept it as the absolute necessity for everyone at all times it often gets portrayed as. Human experience is complicated. Feelings are complicated. We react to our own experiences and our own perspective on the world. The "right" way to feel about it isn't something that can or should be dictated to us in a univocal way (unless that's something we are seeking).

Gratitude can be good, but there is nothing wrong with feeling the types of things that are often viewed as incompatible with or antithetical to gratitude either. There is nothing wrong with not feeling grateful, with feeling the exact opposite of gratitude, with saying, "F@#* gratitude.". Even if you objectively recognize that there are good things in the world and in your life that merit positive regard and praise, it doesn't mean you always or even often have to feel it. Some of the worst most selfish behaviours can be carried out by people who are "grateful for what they have" and some of the best can be carried out by people who are unable to feel positive about what they have but just know that they would never want to hurt others or take what they have away from them (as perhaps has been done to them).

I'm not saying that there aren't ways of feeling that may not be healthier than others, but I feel that it's  contextual. There are times when feeling grateful makes sense and there may be times when feeling all our grief with no hint of gratitude may be just what some of us need. So I'm not saying people should be silent about gratitude or the ways in which cultivating it *may* help but we need to stop speaking as if it has to be a mandatory component of a healthy and moral human life at all times. 

A lot of mental health conditions affect what we are able to feel. Trauma can also rob us of so many of the truly good and valuable things in life that being asked to be thankful for whatever still remains can feel horribly invalidating. We don't need the force of overly simplistic moral judgments and platitudes about what counts as a healthy life to be heaped on top of this.

Further, as far as morality goes, gratitude (arguably) means very little if you aren't also committing to help others. "This is mine and I'm grateful for it" isn't an obviously inherently morally superior sentiment on its own...

So my message on this day on which you may be hearing all sorts of declarations about what you *should* feel and what attitude you *should* have: feel free to feel your feelings whatever they may be. If it helps, you could use the opportunity to reflect on what those feelings are and what it is about them that could help you be the person (both from a health and morality standpoint) that you aspire to be. You could reflect on what role, *if any*, gratitude could have in that right now, and what form that could take. If the answer is that gratitude is the last thing you need at the moment, because your grief, frustration or anger needs its day for the time being, but perhaps you could circle back to gratitude later when you're ready, that's totally valid. If your feelings aren't hurting others, I hope no day celebrating one particular attitude/feeling/orientation on the world will ever make you feel guilt or shame about them.

At the same time, I do value gratitude when it arises from my own experiences in a genuinely healing way, in a manner consistent with my sense of my moral obligations. And what I have to be thankful for has increased over the past year in many ways (while decreasing in others). I totally agree that recognizing that (in my own way, on my own timeline) can be very helpful at the moment so I'm going to take the time to do so.

So let's celebrate gratitude as a feeling/stance/attitude--worthy of consideration, discussion, exploration and celebration--that can help many people depending on the context, timing and circumstances. But let's be cautious about the way we frame it. If you can't or don't wish to feel it right now, it doesn't mean you are necessarily being unhealthy or morally deficient. There's a whole lot more that would need to be known for those kinds of assessments. Your feelings are valid. No one can tell you how you should feel on any given day, at least without knowing a whole lot about you. 

Let the idea of "Thanksgiving" or "gratitude practice" (or however it may be framed) be a gentle invitation--to accept or decline based on our current needs--rather than an explicit or implicit obligation.

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): 

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

Sunday, September 13, 2020

My Approach to Mental Health Messaging: Embracing the Contradictory Multitudes

 I'm relatively new to acknowledging that I have a mental health condition. I have mixed feelings about what it means. Sometimes I embrace it. Other times I feel it fails to capture what I'm experiencing. Sometimes I reject the label altogether; other times it helps to have a name (even a far from perfect one) for what I'm going through. It helps to connect me to a community of people with experiences similar to mine.

As for healing, I've embarked on the path slowly and cautiously. I've researched my condition and I've also done a lot of soul-searching before choosing what treatments to accept and reject.

Within me, there is enormous ambivalence, complexity, and nuance. I don't see this as a problem. Embracing and examining these apparently contradictory multitudes within me is part of my path towards self-knowledge and healing. 

Since acknowledging myself as someone living with this experience, I've also managed to connect with others who have similar conditions. Brilliant, wonderful, amazing people I'm so proud to know. 

In some ways, their experiences are very much like mine. Yet we can also have very strong opinions/feelings about what what healing should mean, what the essence of our suffering is, what kinds of treatments we should try, etc.

Just as I embrace the seemingly contradictory multitudes within me, I embrace them in my newfound community.

It's part of what it means to be human: to not have to be reduced to one dimension. To get to be seen and heard in all our shimmery glorious brilliant agonizing terrifying contradictions. To me, PTSD means one thing. To someone else, it may mean something else altogether. It may depend on the moment we happen to be in, the history we happen to have, our cultural and/or socioeconomic background, and any number of other things. Our condition is important but can't be understood separately from the ways in which it intersects with all that is unique about us.

We can find connection in the common threads we identify, but there is no solace for me in that if there isn't also room for profoundly difficult questions about which we may disagree. 

Personally I've noted that the highly individual, seriously complicated way in which trauma affects me is a reflection of the nature of the experience of trauma, which is something that can shake our entire being and send shockwaves throughout our whole brains, bodies and spirits. Because it strikes at our foundations and can have wide-ranging disparate contradictory unpredictable effects, our subjective experiences of the same type of trauma(s) may share a lot of similarities but also have dramatically different manifestations and meanings. I think of it like an earthquake. It all depends on how you were situated when it struck, your pre-existing strengths and vulnerabilities, how it happened to unfold, which parts of you happened to get repaired first, as well as so many random factors that can follow. For some, the essence of an earthquake experience may be the fires it caused. For others the damage could have resulted directly from the shaking itself. For others it could be the loss of all their material possessions. And, of course, for any one person it can be all those things and so much more. 

Some may find a refuge during or afterwards that may mitigate the impact, while others may be caught out in the open. Some may experience the event with others in ways that shape the experience, while others may experience it completely on their own.

And for those of us with Complex PTSD, it was not one earthquake, but numerous events that shook us in the same or differing ways, some striking just as we were trying to repair the damage from the previous one. If I had to point to one defining feature of the experience for me, it would be its complexity: the way it strikes at the core of everything and sends ripple effects throughout all aspects of my life in ways that aren't possible to understand without knowing me as an individual.

Naturally, there will be similarities but we do no one any service if we try to erase the differences.

I can't speak about other conditions: some may be more straightforward. And perhaps some people may even have a relatively straightforward presentation of PTSD that can readily be generally understood. I am not equipped to speak to others' lived experiences. But nevertheless no condition exists in the abstract: rather they all affect individuals who have their own histories, vulnerabilities and strengths. 

So when it comes to mental health messaging, my approach, informed by my own experience of complexity:

1) Platitudes and generalized directions/slogans may help some but can cause actual harm to others. Just because something works for you, or even works for a lot of people, doesn't mean it will help someone else. Presenting it as a universal truth or directive can be profoundly stigmatizing and harmful for those who have a different experience. Sometimes the reason people have a different experience is because they come from a very different background than the majority around them. If we want to create inclusive messaging, our messaging should come from a place of humility. Even when it seems like something so obvious and basic, please consider that it may not be so simple for many whose experiences have not been like yours. Just to speak from my own experiences, being directed that people who love themselves are better in x, y.z ways is profoundly harmful to me, since my ability to love myself has been problematized and damaged (perhaps permanently, perhaps not) by my experiences of trauma. Such slogans and mantras send a message that I am less worthy as I am, which only compounds the harm I've already experienced. And being directed in a catchy overly-simplistic slogan to embrace self-compassion as if it were an easy thing to do is similarly harmful because my experience of my condition has made that road very dangerous to me (I might attempt it but only with careful planning and guidance) and it's possible I will never be able to travel it. Cutesy slogans about how you have to love yourself before you can care for others are damaging, not to mention questionable in their accuracy, both morally and factually (as I explored here). There may be a place to have nuanced philosophical conversations about who is "right" about such questions, but platitudes/slogans/directives that ignore the underlying complexity aren't the way to do it. 

2) That is not to say I don't think it's helpful for us to share our experiences and wisdom so we can learn from others what has helped them and choose whether to try it ourselves. but we can do this in a way that allows for differing perspectives and experiences. Instead of saying, "Do X," we can say "X has helped me," or even "Many people have found X helpful, so you may wish to try it and see if it works for you." Or "I used to feel X, but I found that when I opened my mind to Y, it was very healing to me, and here is how I did it. I'm sharing it because perhaps it may help others too." Sharing of experiences and individualized wisdom is far more helpful (in my view) than sharing of platitudes, directives, and slogans. Unlike directives and slogans, sharing of personal experiences takes away the potential blaming and stigmatizing. It is simply an offering to others: here is what has helped me. Perhaps it could help you too. It doesn't deprive the recipient of whatever wisdom it may contain, but it leaves open the possibility of different experiences so as not to exclude or erase those who may have a different perspective, perhaps for very valid reasons. It allows us to find areas of connection while also leaving room for us to be who we are and heal in our own ways.

3) So my ideal mental health messaging is anything that cultivates (or at least doesn't undermine) a zone in which we can listen and share, without judgment or preconceived ideas about the "correct" answers and approaches. Where we can be individuals and also find connection amidst the nuance and complexity. Where we can note trends and apply what we have learned from them without closing our minds to the fact that some among us may have very different experiences. I try my best whenever I make an outwardly directed mental health utterance to ask myself: am I promoting or undermining this aim? It won't be perfect (especially when tweeting with limited brain cells and limited word counts) but I strongly believe that the value of such a space is far more important than any possible message or directive. So much harm could easily be corrected simply by rephrasing in a more open and humble way. This applies both to mental health professionals (who often see themselves as imparting the fruits of what they know based on their studies and what clients have told them) and to those who speak from lived experience (who have hugely valuable information to share but sometimes can lapse into speaking as if the approach that helped them heal is true and necessary for everyone).

4) Finally a point about language. I think we should aim to eliminate egregiously stigmatizing, historically demeaning and harmful language, but in my view the ultimate goal shouldn't be to find the least stigmatizing language: it should be to create a culture in which mental health variations are understood with such empathy and nuance that we don't have to fear that a failure to use the "correct" term will cause harm. I feel like it's a privilege to exist with an identity that allows for a feeling of safety in being able to withstand numerous diverging seemingly contradictory ways of describing oneself. We don't worry so much about the correct ways of describing what it's like to not have a mental health condition. People who are free of such a condition are permitted to describe themselves in all kinds of ways without having to consult their "community" first. Rather than find the best, least stigmatizing language for a mental health condition, we need to get at the root of why we feel this is necessary in the first place. We need to remove the attitudes that create ugly language in the first place and force us to constrain our "acceptable" language within narrowly policed boundaries. Speaking only for myself, it's exhausting to navigate and is a harm in itself to be sent the message that there is only one right way to feel about and describe my condition. The inability to allow for differences and contradictions within a shared identity without undermining the worth of those who share it is in itself a major harm we need to address. It shows how fragile the "non-stigmatizing"window is if it can survive only highly specific ways of viewing and describing a condition.  For instance, some will say we shouldn't describe ourselves as "suffering" from a disability, but for me suffering is an absolutely essential aspect of my condition. I suffered trauma and I suffer its after-effects every day. It doesn't mean I'm not strong and I haven't "survived" but someone can't understand the way I experience my condition if they don't grasp the incredible suffering it involves and the barriers that suffering creates. So why can't we have both? Why are we limited to one way of identifying and speaking about ourselves? Why are we all forced into the same boat rather than being allowed to remain on and describe our own while still remaining in community with others? Is it because we have to collectively shrink ourselves in social space and speak (as well as be spoken about) in one voice despite the variety and complexity in our experiences? In my view, that's the harm we need to address: not the language, but the constraints placed on us when we ask the question of what language we must use and avoid to "fit" within our community and not "stigmatize" it.

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): 

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

Saturday, September 5, 2020

First Generation Law Student/Lawyer

When I started law school nearly twenty years ago, I had a different background than most of my classmates. Unlike many of them (as far as I could tell), I was a first-generation law student who knew what it was like to experience poverty, trauma* and chaos from an early age.. 

 When I was born, my father was a 22-year-old truck driver and my 20-year-old mother remained at home. When I was five, they separated, and my mom moved me and my younger brothers to a small village in another province. While we had never been wealthy when our parents were together, from that point on we spent our early childhood years surrounded by poverty and dysfunction. When I was seven, my mother disclosed abuse that she had experienced as a child, which triggered a series of chaotic events resulting in a month-long hospitalization for her and years of unstable living situations for us. For the next several years, we bounced back and forth between our parents and other relatives, at the mercy of their ever-changing, precarious and unstable living situations and lifestyle-challenges. Throughout our childhood, our mother relied on social assistance, while our father, when he was employed, worked as a drywaller. We subsequently had a stepmother who initially was a waitress in a bar and years later earned income by offering childcare to a few children at time in our home. 

 As a result of my upbringing, I not only lacked an understanding of what it was like to grow up with wealth and powerful social connections, I also knew what it was like to fear that my basic needs might not be met. I had even experienced what it was like not to have a stable and reliable place to live. While we usually had some kind of home, there were a couple occasions when we were functionally homeless, living in a tent with our mother in unhealthy communal living situations on the island to which she had moved. 

 Despite the instability and poverty of my childhood, one thing I almost always excelled at was school. When I finished high school, I won the award for the top academic average in my graduating class. As I progressed through university, I never felt like I didn’t belong academically. When I attended law school, however, in a program that was known for its diversity and inclusion efforts, I encountered an astonishing culture of privilege and entitlement. In itself, that wasn’t entirely new to me. Most of my classmates from grade school to graduate school had seemed to come from more stable and socioeconomically privileged backgrounds than I had. But for the first time in law school, I lost my naivete about how much of a difference my lack of connections would make in my ability to advance in my chosen profession. 

 Even worse for me, there seemed to be an assumption in law school that we all came from similar backgrounds or else we couldn’t have made it there (see my previous post on this topic here). The apparent belief that people with my background (or other backgrounds that didn’t “fit” the prevailing image of a future lawyer) were inherently different from the people in the classroom and profession pervaded our discussions of legal topics. As someone with a history of childhood poverty and personal trauma (as a child and young adult), I was not prepared for how I would feel hearing those issues discussed as if they happened to an entirely “other” class of people. Not only were there obstacles in the way of people like me making it as far as law school, we were erased from view once we got there. To fit in, it seemed, we had to adopt the shared voice of the classroom (and thereafter the profession) by speaking of the problems of the marginalized as something alien, rather than something we may have experienced ourselves and about which we may have valuable personal insight. 

In addition to my general sense of not fitting it, I was also struggling with active (but then undiagnosed) PTSD at the time from events in my past. Any advice I provide should be taken with the caveat that my law school experience was shaped by my personal history, my state of health, my unique strengths, skills, limits and coping mechanisms, and the fact that it happened nearly two decades ago. With that caveat in mind, here’s my advice about how to survive as a law student and member of this profession if you too feel a lack of fit. First, if it feels safe and comfortable to do so, acknowledge your feelings. They are valid. There is a very good chance that it’s not you that’s the problem--it’s the law school environment and/or the legal profession. Unfortunately, the profession and the system that feeds it are not as inclusive as they should be. Second, if there are ways to safely and comfortably find support, then consider doing so. You may wish to explore your university’s counselling services (however, some of these offerings may suffer from the same failings as the system itself, so if they’re not a fit for you, it’s okay to steer clear after weighing the option, as I did). Perhaps you could get to know some of the other students who may also be feeling a lack of fit, for similar or other reasons as you are. Maybe you can support and advocate for each other and create a sense of community. Or perhaps the best way to feel a sense of belonging may be to find and connect with a community outside the law school environment in which you feel more at home. I did this by volunteering at a local animal shelter (which sometimes involved last-minute studying for law school exams from inside the dog enclosures). 

But if all else fails, as it sometimes does in flawed environments no matter how hard we try to do things as we “should,” then my advice is don’t feel bad about doing whatever works for you to get through it as strategically as you can. For me, that meant skipping almost all my classes and spending time with the dogs and cats at the shelter, where I could find a sense of purpose, belonging, meaning and solace that law school failed to offer me. It entailed accepting that my grades would not be excellent but just “good enough” to get me through. I decided early on that I did not care to strive to be near the top of my class. I just needed to get through it and move on. The markers of excellence that everyone embraced in an environment that did not seem to include me lost their allure for me. I could prove my worth later if I decided to become part of the profession. 

 Law school simply became an obstacle for me to get through and I ultimately accepted that was all it could be for me. As I’ve joked many times since, I had an “allergic reaction” to law school which shaped my perspective on it. By approaching it that way, I lost out on the ability to feel like I belonged there. But I was able to keep my sense of who I was, which felt more important to me. That said, there are likely better ways of doing so, and I’m not suggesting that anyone needs to surrender their aspiration to excel and belong. I think it will be possible to find that sense of belonging and rise to the top for many first-generation lawyers, including those who feel a profound sense of not fitting in as I did. I also think it’s entirely possible for people to fit in while unapologetically refusing to be anything but themselves. It just didn’t work that way for me, and I chose to be okay with that. 

Instead of offering advice on how to excel, I’m suggesting that even if it doesn’t work out perfectly, or you don’t feel safe or comfortable trying to fit within the existing culture, or you struggle to fit but worry you are failing, that’s okay too. Law school isn’t your career. You can struggle in law school and find a sense of belonging in the profession later. You can become an amazing lawyer (if that’s still what you want) even if you worry that you don’t belong in law school or in the profession at first. 

So rather than give any particular advice about how to survive and thrive, I will simply suggest that you give yourself permission to do whatever works for you. As for whether you belong here and deserve to be a lawyer, my view is that the very things that may make you fear that you don’t belong are likely all the more reason that this profession needs you. You are what we’ve been missing. And I’m so glad you are here.

*Note, I have not included any recounting of the trauma I was exposed to and experienced, since I have so far opted not to share those details of my life.

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): 

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

FirstGen Law Student 2003--An Email

I was a firstgen law student back in 2003 (3L) (I wrote about my experience and background here: I often feel strange, however, adding my perspective to the firstgen discussion because I worry that voice is unduly influenced by the fact that I've now been a lawyer for 15 years (although my experiences of past poverty and trauma have affected me the entire time).

So I dug up an old email that I wrote when I was still a law student in 2003 to a professor in a seminar class (with a social justice focus) after she made a comment to the effect that all law students must have come from relatively financially privileged backgrounds or they never could have made it there. And please note that this wasn't about privilege generally--it was specifically about socioeconomic background. I recognized both then and now that, despite my lack of privilege in some ways, there are in fact many forms of privilege that I possess, but the comment specifically said people from poverty could never make it.

I'm struck by how my concerns remain the same even nearly 20 years later--the way this profession has affected me, the way I feel I haven't been able to easily fit in. I thought I'd share it in case it might resonate with someone else who is a firstgen lawyer or student (or maybe it won't, and if not that's okay too). Identifying information has been removed since this really isn't about the particular professor in question.

"Dear Prof. X:

I am a student in both [of your seminar classes], and have some concerns that I would like to bring to your attention. This morning you may have noticed that a few students were upset by some comments that were made. In particular, the suggestion that law students are necessarily from relatively privileged backgrounds (or else we wouldn't be here) was a bit unsettling to me.

I should start by saying that I can understand why you have come to that conclusion. I am constantly surprised by the relative degree of privilege enjoyed by many, if not the overwhelming majority, of my classmates. It would no doubt be accurate to say that law students are on the whole a privileged class. Nevertheless, there are some of whom this is most certainly not true, who have come from poverty of varying degrees, and who do not relate to the experiences of privilege that most of their classmates and professors share. For these students, including myself, it can be difficult enough financially to make it through law school (given the rising costs of coursepacks, the cost of the articling application process, etc.). The disadvantages can have a social dimension as well. Being surrounded by peers who not only have little to no difficulty meeting their expenses, but also are able to live relatively luxurious lives, can be pretty difficult when you're struggling to make ends meet, and when you have no idea if you're going to be able to make it through the next semester. This also, of course, gives the students whose lives are free from that kind of stress a tremendous competitive advantage.

My real concern, however, doesn't relate to the disadvantages currently faced by some law students. Rather, I'm much more concerned about the construction of social space in the classroom setting and the way in which the assumption that all law students come from a similar, privileged background can exclude the perspectives of those who have had experiences that depart rather radically from the mainstream, and who already feel alienated in the law school environment. As a student who, among other things, was raised in relatively severe conditions of poverty, I am constantly aware of the restrictions on my ability to speak from personal experience in the classroom: first, because what I would have to say might be so divergent from what others routinely share about their lives and backgrounds that it would distract attention from the point that I was trying to make and would possibly even lead people to wonder somewhat suspiciously why I felt compelled to share it; second, because it would take significantly more effort for me to accurately communicate my experiences, because of the gaps that exist between the nature of my experiences and those of the students whose experiences are more "normal" and therefore more readily understood; third, because of the sense of social stigma and personal discomfort associated with the experiences themselves. At the same time, I am very aware that those whose backgrounds are for the most part unproblematically "normal" are not restricted to nearly the same degree. They are often free--if they so wish--to refer to their personal experiences in class and to explain the insights that they have derived from them (a huge advantage: to be able to not only explain what you think, but to also enhance that explanation by referring to the experiences that support those insights). This is in large part because their experiences are more "mainstream," and are therefore likely to be experienced as less disruptive of the flow of regular classroom discussion.

As isolating as the experience that I have described can be, I recognize, for the most part, that the faculty is not responsible for this unfortunate consequence of law school group dynamics. I do begin to feel disappointed, however, when the law school itself, through its professors or administration, adopts the voice of the majority as an unproblematic "we" and assumes that those with different experiences (that do not reflect privilege) are not to be found within the law school (presumably because they couldn't possibly have made it here) but are all somewhere "out there." For example, I noticed this tendency in first year criminal law when the discussion turned to the "mistake of fact" defence in sexual assault cases. At no point in the discussion was there any recognition of the possibility (probability?) that there were students in the class whose lives were profoundly affected by sexual assault, or any suggestion that the people who spoke up should do so in a manner that would be respectful of that experience, if not by restricting the content of their opinions, at least by expressing them in a sensitive manner. The result was a discussion that was at best a dispassionate, and at worst an insensitive, dissection of the cases, that proceeded on the apparent assumption that the victims were all somewhere "out there" (I was reminded of this experience when reading the piece on X) As a result, people leisurely expressed many apparently ill-considered views with unrestrained freedom. It never seemed to occur to anyone that the ideas that were being so casually tossed around could have a significant impact on the emotional well-being of someone personally struggling with those issues. If the professor had taken some responsibility for that dynamic, and ensured in advance that the class was aware that the people who suffer from those experiences may not only exi st "out there" somewhere in the general population, but may very possibly be among them, then perhaps some of the students who expressed their views that day would have taken greater care to formulate them in a sensitive manner, and to consider the import of what they were saying before they said it. At the very least, the students who had struggled with those experiences wouldn't be left to feel, because they could not comfortably speak it, that the possibility of the presence of their perspective in the classroom had been effectively denied.

I don't mean to be confrontational, but I sometimes find it difficult to understand why many of the most progressive professors, whom I most admire and whose main objective is to increase sensitivity to the otherness that exists "out there" in the larger social world, often tend to disregard, downplay, or deny the otherness that may exist in their own classroom. I've observed that the typical way of engaging the students in many such classes is to uniformly encourage them to acknowledge how privileged (it is assumed) they have been so that they may better understand the situation of those who have not been so fortunate. Together the professor and students acknowledge as a group that they have benefitted while others have suffered. The pedagogical strategy that is thereby adopted works wonderfully well, provided that the assumption on which it is based is true: that the audience consists solely of students who need to learn to put their own concerns in perspective so that they may see the more severe suffering of less privileged classes of persons in the world around them. This is definitely a worthy objective, and may well be very effective for the majority of students. What has surprised me is how rarely those constructing such a dynamic seem to consider the impact that it would have on the types of persons for the sake of whom it is presumably adopted should those people ever end up in the classroom itself.

If a person from a not so privileged background manages to survive elementary school and make it all the way to law school (believe me, it happens!), what might be the impact of being constantly sent the message from the most well-intentioned people that the very fact of her being there is conclusive evidence of a relatively privileged background? I submit that her identity would be denied on a very significant level. She would not only be invisible in fact because she may not, due to the factors I mentioned above, be able to display her true self to her professors and classmates. Her identity would also be denied on a more basic level by the message that it is inconceivable that a person with her background could even exist in that environment. This may be more damaging, as it goes beyond mere invisibility, and creates a presumption that she is a participant in that which she has experienced as standing against her. If she hints at having experienced otherwise, this presumption threatens to ensure that she will be greeted with suspicion (whiny, privileged law student who has never experienced real hardship...). Not only does she then feel that it would be difficult to communicate her experiences, she is also faced with the likelihood of an unreceptive audience if she ever has the strength or desire to attempt to do so. This is what I believed I heard from you today. You seemed quite certain that the students who spoke up to say "not me" were nevertheless coming from a background that was more privileged than they recognized. Probably a pretty good guess on your part in most cases, but one that has the potential to be pretty damaging when inadvertently misdirected.

None of what I have said is meant to be directed specifically at your teaching (hopefully, in my agitation, I have not unwittingly voiced my concerns in an adversarial way; if so, I apologize). I have certainly noticed the same dynamic in many other classes, but the comments today made explicit what usually goes unstated. I have a deep respect for your teaching and for the class, or else I wouldn't even dare to attempt to communicate my perspective. I am writing this because I believe it is important for you to be aware that there are people (or at least one!) who have this perspective.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.



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): 

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2020


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): 

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):

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