Saturday, January 11, 2020

Imposter

There's a lot of discussion about imposter syndrome in the legal profession.

I've been reflecting on it a lot lately because in some ways it fits me. But here's what I've realized: I don't have imposter syndrome. I'm actually an imposter.

The feeling that I don't belong in this profession doesn't come from some syndrome. It isn't a problem with my perception.

I don't belong in this profession because this profession wasn't designed for people like me to (1) exist (2) show who we are; and (3) be accepted, supported and appreciated for it.

So how to change this? Is the answer just to say "Be yourself!" "Don't let the profession dictate who you can be."

Um, sure, okay, maybe to some extent, and I'm certainly trying now more than ever, but let's get real.

Being able to be ourselves in an environment that requires interaction with other people doesn't just depend on us being authentic. It depends on those other people being willing to put the effort in to engage with us as such.

For those of us with background experiences and personal circumstances that significantly differ from the "norm" (the default assumptions about who we are or might be), this requires time, sensitivity and attention from those around us. In many instances, they will have to put in the effort to learn about us (by learning more about us as individuals and/or learning more about the groups to which we do or might belong) to truly see us because we are not generally visible as who we are. This would need to happen not only on an individual level in personal interactions but also on a systemic one so the structures/culture of the profession support us in being our true selves (or at least don't force us to surmount endless obstacles just to participate), and thereby allow us to truly belong (rather than pretend to fit in).

One complication for those of us with trauma histories is that it may not always be possible or feasible for us to truly share much, if anything, about what's going on with us, even when it affects our vital interests. I call it "the curse of being complicated" and plan to elaborate on it in a future post. Briefly, being inherently complicated for me means I can't share really important things that shape my perspective because (1) others often don't feel comfortable hearing them and erect boundaries to protect themselves from me simply sharing who I am and what I've been through. Maybe they think it's too personal or just "too much" for them to handle hearing (as I wrote about here); (2) It's complicated and couldn't be explained quickly or easily--it would require time and effort on others' part to hear it; and (3) It's highly personal so I may not feel comfortable sharing it all, and there may be personal consequences to me for doing so. I described some of the barriers to sharing our stories here and here.

Yet keeping it private (i.e., remaining invisible) has real consequences, since our needs, challenges, vulnerabilities and strengths may not be possible to understand properly without knowing what we have endured, have overcome, and are still facing. When those highly personal aspects of ourselves have become injured, it can damage us in so many ways, not the least of which (for me at least) is by isolating us from others who don't understand and aren't prepared to make the effort to learn about what we have been through.

So how do we address "imposter syndrome?" I don't know the answer, but we could start by asking about the extent to which it reflects something real rather than imagined. If we don't feel we belong, is it because we are in an environment that actually doesn't truly permit us to exist and thrive as who we are?

Maybe there are things we can do individually to minimize its impact on us, but let's not pretend we have individual control over it when we often don't. For "imposter reality" the only way to heal the feeling of not belonging is to change the profession itself so it allows people like us to truly be ourselves while also having our needs met and our contributions supported and respected.

So, no I don't have imposter syndrome. I am an imposter. I often have to pretend to be someone I'm not in order to function here. Even when I don't actively pretend, the invisible forces and default assumptions kick in to cover who I truly am.

I'd love for us all to get to know each other and start being our authentic selves, but that isn't something that's just going to happen through individual efforts. It isn't just a syndrome we each can cure.

So let's start talking, listening, strategizing and taking action so we can all have the benefit of belonging.

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


Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019 Reflections and 2020 Goals

This was a big year for me. To be honest, I'm really glad it's over. Here's a review of some of what happened for me in 2019 and what my goals are for 2020.

2019 started with me in terrible shape. The effects of my trauma history were in full force. To describe just a few of its manifestations, I was having nightmares, severe sleep difficulties, and tremendous anxiety. Sometimes, my hands would shake so much as I ate lunch in my office that I'd have difficulty getting the forkful of food to my mouth. Other times, my teeth would chatter uncontrollably.

My difficulties were (and continue to be) aggravated by the fact that I'm very isolated in my new life (having moved to a new city at the beginning of 2018). My previous type of work was far more social than my current one, and I know almost no one in my new location. Also, regardless of location, I hadn't confided my personal history fully to anyone ever before. Although I had confided many things to a few people two decades earlier, none of those people were really still in my life. None of my current friends (from the past couple decades) knew my history (apart from small hints I'd given here and there).

In February, I was overcome with the growing need for someone who knew me to know my history. I didn't have any goal beyond that--I just needed someone to know. So, with shaking hands, I typed it out (as fast as my shaky hands would permit, never looking back at it for typos, because it was too difficult to read what I'd just written) and sent it to a friend in Ontario who has known me for nearly my entire career (having asked permission first). Although the trauma in my story was plain and obvious, I feared that my friend's response would be that I was overreacting. Or that the friend would agree that it was a big deal but would think less of me for having such a history.

When my friend responded in a way that validated my experience (that's a lot to be dealing with and no, I don't think less of you), I felt empowered to take a couple further steps.

I wasn't ready for any major steps. So I made an appointment with my family doctor with the plan of simply telling him in a very general way (1) that I had a significant trauma history, and (2) it was heavily affecting me. I didn't want any help at that time. I just wanted to lay the foundation for it, so the hard part of disclosing was done and if I ever needed urgent help in the future, I could simply say, "Remember that stuff I told you about before?"

In the meantime, I also reached out to a mental health professional I felt I'd be comfortable speaking with and whose opinion I knew I'd trust (which is saying a lot, because it's very difficult for me to trust anyone that way) and shared the same typed history that I'd sent my friend. In that conversation, I received important validation. I always feared my experiences somehow didn't count, so hearing someone with expertise tell me it was a lot to be dealing with was a critical step.

It made it possible to then speak to my doctor without being too overwhelmed with the feeling that I was making too much of it. Nevertheless, the doctor's appointment was incredibly difficult. I remember studying the room before he came in as if my life depended on knowing all its features before I could speak. I had difficulty getting the words out, but somehow I did. I couldn't give specifics or correct him when he misunderstood some aspects of it, but I mostly got the point across in a general way.

Without getting into details, a lot of things have happened for my mental health this year. I received a diagnosis for the first time (PTSD, w/ associated depression and anxiety). I started seeing my doctor regularly to monitor my condition and I had regular supportive conversations with the mental health professional I trusted. Although I had hoped to avoid it, having worked without any medical leave my entire career, it became clear that time away from work was necessary, so in May I went on a short-term medical leave.

In early June, without describing my own experiences, I wrote an article (here) about how I believe our profession needs to do a better job of acknowledging that trauma isn't just something that happens to those we serve: many of us have histories too. I explained why it's so important for us to acknowledge and address this, especially when we are having conversations about vicarious trauma and  lawyers' mental health.

I then started this blog. At first I opted not to directly identify myself as someone with a history (although it was heavily implied). Then I eventually spoke out about my own story to some extent (which was incredibly difficult to do at first). Nevertheless I kept almost all the details of my underlying history private.

Speaking out has been good for me in some ways, not so good in others. In some ways, it enabled me to be my true self and connect to a few like-minded people (long-distance) who truly "get it," something I never had before and treasure immensely. However, it also had the effect of revealing many of the friendships I'd previously believed in as not being what I thought they were. Not only did many of my friends not respond in a supportive and validating way, they (with a few exceptions) simply stopped acknowledging that I existed altogether. It wasn't so much an outright rejection. I just became invisible. I was no longer worth acknowledging.

So 2019 dramatically increased my feelings of isolation. While on medical leave, very few people reached out to check in about how I was doing. I wasn't angry, but this was at odds with what the mental health pep talks in our profession suggest will happen. I had always been skeptical but here I was experiencing the unacknowledged invisibility that can sometimes result from speaking out on an uncomfortable subject. I know it's not that way for everyone: many are supported, especially if they happen to be surrounded by genuinely supportive people already. But I was isolated to begin with, and identifying myself as someone suffering from this issue further isolated me.

One thing I'd like to note: an important part of the struggle for me this year was maintaining my sense of autonomy when treatments I didn't feel ready for (or didn't want at all) were sometimes pushed on me by well-meaning people. I'm glad I maintained my boundaries in that regard. Asserting my autonomy is an important part of healing for me. I've opted for therapy rather than medication for my own non-capricious fully-informed reasons, and am glad I remained firm in that boundary even when I felt a lot of pressure to opt for medication. The few times I caved in and tried medication against my better judgment, the experience was terrible for me, even more so because it felt like an intrusion on my control over my own body and mind. That's not to say that medication might not be preferred by others for good reason, or may even be essential for some mental health conditions. I'm not writing this to suggest medication shouldn't be considered by those for whom it is an option. I can't speak for everyone. It was just important for me personally as a trauma survivor to get a say in the kind of treatment I'd try rather than succumbing to pressure by others trying to make my decisions for me, thereby replicating the sense of helplessness I felt as part of my traumatic experiences. Maintaining my ability to say no to things I didn't want was important treatment in itself for me, and I was lucky to have a trauma-informed mental health professional who supported my right and ability to do so. If that support wasn't available, I would have (1) had my autonomy undermined in a way that further traumatized me (which would have been difficult to recover from); and/or (2) would have withdrawn from treatment altogether and concealed my symptoms, so as to be able to retain my sense of control over the care of my own body and mind, and possibly never trusted another professional again. Because my autonomy was truly supported, I was able to receive help that wouldn't otherwise have been possible for me. There are no words sufficient to describe my gratitude for having received this kind of assistance.

In October, I returned to work, initially on a part-time basis, which increased to full-time a month later.

Now it's the end of the year and I look back at the year with some pride and also a sense of great sadness and loss.

It needed to happen. I couldn't have carried on the way I was. But it confirmed in a painful way what I already knew: we have a long way to go as a society and a profession before stigma and discrimination regarding trauma and mental health are truly understood and addressed. The stigma is real. The discrimination is real. It was (and remains) upsetting to have to experience it, but I'm glad I finally named and embraced what was affecting me for so long, even if it was in many ways a demoralizing, isolating, discriminatory, and stigmatizing experience. It's a difficult fight but I want to be part of it. I lost my sense of fitting in (to the extent that I ever had it), but I found my true sense of identity and community (in a general sense at least). I know now who I want to speak for. I know who I want to be there for. Even when it's painful and difficult.

So with all that in mind, here are some of my 2020 goals:
  • I want to continue speaking up about trauma and lawyers' mental health. In doing so, I know I'm going to be a bit of an "outsider" voice. As a result, I probably won't often be invited to be part of the mainstream conversation. I want everyone to be mentally healthy in the profession but I don't see myself primarily as a voice for the wellness movement in the profession. I definitely support that aim. I want everyone to be okay and I know that everyone is at risk (even those who start out fine), but my goal is to be a voice for those who might be left out of (and even harmed by) that more general "wellness movement" if we fail to acknowledge the different ways in which we might be affected, given our differing histories and circumstances. I want to be a voice for those already affected by trauma-related and/or mental health vulnerabilities. 
  • In doing so, I want to maintain and improve my own humility. I want to be an outsider voice in the ways I can based on my own experiences (as someone with substantial trauma/disadvantage preceding my admission to the profession, and as someone with a chronic mental health issue that can't easily or quickly be "fixed"), but my goal to be a voice for outsiders mandates that I know that my voice should never stand alone. It is just one among many. There are many ways in which I'm less privileged than my colleagues but there are also numerous ways in which I benefit from substantial privilege despite my suffering. So in addition to speaking from my own experience, I need to make the effort to listen to and amplify the voices of others who speak about this issue from other perspectives, especially those who have also been marginalized, silenced and excluded in different and intersecting ways.
  • I want to try to find ways to help those who may not be directly affected to understand that they should be listening and paying attention to this issue too. Those of us who are affected can't do it on our own. We need allies who make the effort to understand. 
  • More generally, I want to try to brainstorm and help implement ways that we can improve our professional culture by decreasing isolation in the profession. I envision a movement to promote wellness, social and professional connection, and meaningful dialogue in the profession in a way that consciously strives to be inclusive. As an outsider voice, I'm not quite sure how to do it, but I'd like to try. I know how painful isolation and exclusion can be and I know I can't be the only one affected...
  • I want to continue to speak up as someone very vulnerable in many ways, but also strong and capable of speaking for herself. I don't want to have to sacrifice one aspect of my identity in exchange for the other. I can be strong and vulnerable at the same time, and until the profession truly embraces this (beyond mere lip-service) nothing will improve. I want to ensure that the profession realizes that including those who have disabling mental health conditions is about both (1) respecting the rights of those affected,and (2) acknowledging how important their contributions to the profession are (and how these contributions could be supported so those of us affected could contribute even more, if we were actually meaningfully included, listened to, and accommodated). 
  • Personally, I intend to continue with therapy. In addition to specifically addressing my trauma, I plan to work to (1) find ways to increase my sense of meaning by contributing as much as I can to society and to my profession, (2) mourn my considerable losses, and (3) reduce my sense of isolation by creating new connections. Despite the stress of the profession, I know I also need to find ways to care for my physical health, because I've learned how critical that is for my mental health.
I'm not going to be dishonest and say that I'm entering 2020 with great hope and optimism. The steps I took in 2019 were important and necessary for me, but there was also a lot of pain and loss. In some ways, I'm stronger than I was before. In other ways, 2019 has left me vulnerable. I have no idea what 2020 will bring. But I'm willing to approach it with an open mind.

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









Sunday, December 22, 2019

Aiming to be "Strong Enough" to Handle the Things that Are "Too Much"

As I've said many times, when it comes to issues of trauma and mental health in our profession, everything is complicated, which is why we need to talk about it.

One issue that I have particularly mixed feelings about is this: on the one hand, we need to practice self-care, which includes acknowledging and addressing the impact that exposure to traumatic stories may have on us. Yet, on the other hand, this should never be used as an excuse to silence or exclude those whose lived experiences include trauma/injustice that might render our self-care more difficult if we had to face it too.

I firmly believe we have to do all we can to care for ourselves and create a supportive environment that nurtures individual and collective self-care, rather than simply demanding "toughness" from each other. But I also believe that we don't get to ask those whose experiences may trouble us to conceal themselves and their current and past circumstances from view. In other words, we shouldn't practice discrimination in the name of our own self-care (especially if we hold important positions in society). Asking people to conceal the parts of their experiences that trouble us leads to those burdens being disproportionately borne by those who have no choice but to carry them. It also means that the injustices that created those burdens in the first place (or were created or aggravated by them) will go unaddressed. It means some people won't be free to speak of their own realities the way others can, to seek justice in a meaningful way, to be genuinely understood and cared for, etc., with the result that stigma and discrimination will continue to be perpetuated and amplified.

So that's the source of my ambivalence. I see the value of trigger warnings for self-care (especially for those who are vulnerable due to their own history and/or mental health conditions), but as someone with a personal history that includes things that would trouble others, it deeply bothers me to not be permitted to share anecdotes and experiences the way others can. I shouldn't have to offer a trigger warning before sharing my own life story. There's a huge privilege in being able to casually share one's own experiences without having to pause first and ask if people are okay with being exposed to them: to not have to worry that who you are will be "too much" for those around you, and people will suddenly impose all kinds of automatic boundaries because you are inherently just too troubling to even exist in a tolerable way in their social space, so you have to hide who you are to protect everyone else's need for self-care: their need to not have to be troubled by the things you've personally experienced and have no choice but to be affected by.

I fear the self-care movement becoming a mechanism used by the more privileged in the name of their psychological well-being to exclude, marginalize and silence those who have experienced severe harm and are therefore just too troubling, and disruptive to the tranquility of the majority, thereby leaving those who have been most harmed to cope with the harshest realities life has to offer all on their own because it's just too much for the well-being of the dominant group. I see this happen in my own personal life, when people just can't handle knowing what's going on with me because it is simply "too much" and "too personal" for them to allow into their space. They could handle someone else's struggles but it has to be calibrated to their level of tolerance. Consequently, people like me have dramatically limited opportunities for connection, which greatly affects our psychological well-being. I also see it in the self-care movement in the profession sometimes. I'm not saying it's intentional but it's something we have to be on guard for, as I wrote about here.

So my view is this: we need to attend to our self-care, but the goal in doing so must be not to shield ourselves from the troubling things in the world, but to strengthen ourselves (through self-nurturing, self-care, and supportive spaces) so we can meaningfully face the harsh realities that others have lived through and continue to live through. And so we can do so with compassion and empathy.

The answer isn't to be "tough" in the first place. Someone who can dispassionately hear about the deep traumas and injustices that profoundly affect others, without being at risk of being personally affected by those stories, is not someone who (in my view) is truly engaging with those stories or likely to be well-positioned to redress the injustices they contain and reveal. Empathy and compassion are key, yet those qualities involve vulnerability on the part of the listener, which in my view is a skill that we need to learn and embrace. To really get how horrifying and unjust the experiences of some are requires being able to feel that horror and injustice, which isn't--and shouldn't be--easy. So without self-care, there can be no lasting meaningful engagement.

Moreover, if we simply require "toughness" and non-feeling, then we risk leaving out those that have the most to contribute: those who have been personally affected, and therefore truly understand and are in a position to help guide us in navigating these realities.

So let's practice good self-care not because we want to hide from the harsh realities of the world but because we want to hold space for others to be able to be truly visible to us. So we can sincerely empathize with their suffering yet not be rendered helpless by it.

I do acknowledge that some of us may already have carried too much suffering (especially those from affected groups), and there's no shame in needing to step back and nurture oneself (perhaps by creating safe spaces and carefully calibrating exposure to stories that trigger personal wounds) for those who have greater vulnerability. I think our discussions of this issue need be nuanced enough to allow for those unavoidable needs/boundaries to ensure that we are inclusive. But my view is that our collective goal should be to enhance our resilience and self-care so we can include everyone in our social space.  That means the profession must provide support and proactively nurture the courage and resilience of its members and of the culture in which those members practice. It means that demanding "toughness" and non-feeling is not only not the answer, but is an abject failure. The more we support and care for each other, the greater our collective strength and resilience will be. And we need that resilience because this stuff can't and shouldn't be easy. We need every ounce of strength and support to face 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

Saturday, November 16, 2019

What I Won't Let My Trauma Take from Me

I've lost a lot due to the trauma I've suffered. I haven't really even begun the process of assessing and mourning those losses but when I do, I know it will be incredibly difficult. When the combination of my stressful career and coping with the impact of my trauma became too much for me, I simply pressed pause on my social and personal development for more than a decade so I could continue to be able to function in my career. I withdrew from having an active social life, which means I stopped dating (and am unsure if I ever will resume--how does that even work these days?). Without making a deliberate decision not to do so, I never had children (and now have to face that it is almost certainly too late). Many of my friendships were disrupted, worn down, and ultimately ended as I tried my best to simply manage and cope mostly in silence, never able to explain what was going on with me, with the result that I'm now in my early 40's with minimal social supports, living a very isolated existence.

That's all very painful, but there's something I'm still proud of and can still strive for.

I won't judge others for how they cope with their pain, but I made a pledge to myself long ago about the one thing I won't let my trauma take from me. I won't let it take my compassion and empathy for others. My ability and willingness to see the pain and injustices in the world and feel for those who experience them. And my ability to do so while still being able to (when appropriate) maintain a principled stance, within the limits of whatever my role may be, that enables me not to get swept away by the pain of my own experiences. It's the one thing I've kept at the forefront of my mind the entire time I've suffered: how to be someone who has these difficult experiences, and yet still navigate the difficult moral and ethical landscape of the world with openness and empathy. How to not let those experiences stop me from striving to do better and be better--even if I have to say goodbye to the hopes and dreams I had for myself.

I understand why some might feel a need to withdraw sometimes from doing painful work that triggers them, and I am in no way diminishing the need for self-care. I definitely need to learn to do a better job of taking breaks, recharging, and not committing to more than I can reasonably bear, but I choose not to allow my trauma to lead me to withdraw permanently. I don't want to retreat to some comfortable view of the world while people continue to suffer. I want to use my own trauma to make me a better ally to others who have suffered (whether in the same or different ways as I have). I want to use my own strength that I've had no choice but to develop to enable me to stand alongside others and not turn away when their suffering might just be "too much" for others to witness. I know what it's like to feel like "too much." I want to be one of the people who always strives to build and maintain a capacity to witness the terrible things that happen in the world so I can do what I can to help (as frustratingly limited as my ability to truly change the world may be).

And just as importantly, I choose to continue to be someone who doesn't let my fears, grief, and trauma responses hold me hostage while I do so. If I'm going to remain in the landscape where people suffer, and are harmed, marginalized and oppressed, then I need to have eyes fully open. I need to be capable  of not only reflecting on my own experiences but also stepping back from them to imagine the point of view of others with very different experiences, even when it might otherwise be triggering for me. I'm proud to say this is something I'm capable of doing--a capacity I have carefully cultivated for as long as I can remember--that has served me well in enabling me to function as a principled member of society and an ethical and professionally responsible lawyer while also coping with my own difficult internal life. It's never perfect, but it's something I can proudly keep striving to do better at.

Maybe this way of coping didn't serve me well personally. Maybe it resulted in me directing all of that pain onto myself in ever-harsher ways so it wouldn't infect my ability to empathize and engage with others in the principled way I've felt called upon to do. I'll have to come to terms with whatever losses I may have suffered as a result. And that will truly suck.

But at least there's this one thing I didn't let it take from me. Something I can build on. Something truly meaningful that I can strive to improve on. Something important. Something. 

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


Tuesday, November 5, 2019

If You Don't Love Yourself....

There are all kinds of reasons why self-love, self-worth, self-compassion and self-care are important.

Or so I'm told (and I do believe it)....

But I want to be clear on one thing. If you just can't seem to love yourself, have compassion for yourself, and/or care for yourself, it does not mean that you are a less worthy person than others as a result of your inability to do so.

For some of us, the ability to feel these things for ourselves has been taken from us, e.g., as a result of trauma and/or a mental health condition. We just can't seem to love and value ourselves in the way we're told that we should.

Obviously, there are treatments for this, some of which may work for some of us, and some may not. I strongly encourage anyone who can seek treatment to do so. I hear treatment can be quite successful for many people.

But in the meantime, don't let anyone use the harm that has been done to you that has resulted in the inability to love and care for yourself, as a basis to invalidate the love and care that you give to others and the contributions you make to the world.

If you can't seem to love yourself, but you are kind and loving to others, then my firm view is that the love and kindness you give counts every bit as much as someone else's. Sayings like "before you can love others, you have to love yourself" are well-meaning but discriminatory bullshit in my opinion.

And if you care for others, despite being unable to care for yourself, that doesn't mean that you don't deserve to be appreciated for the amazing good that you do. If you can't seem to feel compassion for yourself, but feel incredible compassion for others, then that is still real and valid.

Maybe for pragmatic or altruistic reasons, we are constantly telling people that they have to be "positive" and "self-loving" and "self-compassionate" to properly care for others. That may or may not be true in many cases. Of course, some kinds of selflessness are draining, harmful and counter-productive, but we shouldn't assume this is the case for everyone. Some of us are just making the best of the good things we can experience when genuine self-love/care isn't available to us. Some of us just truly care for others even when we aren't able to feel the same way for ourselves.

You can love someone and not love yourself. It's sad and heartbreaking because it shouldn't have to be that way, but that doesn't mean it can't be valid and true. You can give to others and enjoy the feeling of doing so, even if you are currently disabled from caring for yourself the way you might want to. You need to be cautious to ensure that your lack of self-care doesn't interfere with your ability to properly care for others but that doesn't mean you can't do it.

I want people to try to love themselves because they deserve it, not because it's just one more thing to fault themselves for feeling unable to do. So maybe the first step in self-love, self-compassion and self-care is just to stop feeling like failures without it. For my part, I need to accept myself as I am, and see the good things that I'm still able to contribute to the world even if my relationship with myself is never corrected. I can love someone else even if I never learn to love myself. I can and do feel immense compassion for others even if I just can't seem to extend it to myself deep down. And although some self-care is required to care for others, deficiencies in my overall self-care that don't render me incapable of caring for others won't invalidate any good I do.

For me, I'm willing to try to learn what it means to love, value and care for myself for my own sake, but the first step is that I need to be okay with the possibility that it might not materialize. I can still have good experiences and meaningful connections to others. I can still make a difference in the world. My value is not limited by how much I'm able to know and feel it.

When I reflect on my own experience, I just want to tell anyone similarly situated that it's okay. No one can take from you the good things you feel and contribute. And an inability to value yourself shouldn't mean that others won't value you.

So maybe we can create a sense of community in which we can help each other out...

If you're depressed and can't seem to value yourself, that's okay because I value you anyway. If you've been hurt so much and so deeply that you no longer feel capable of compassion for yourself, that's okay because I will feel it for you. If we all do that for each other, maybe it can help us get by until we learn to feel something more on our own for ourselves. And if some of us just never get there, that's okay because we still have that sense of community and connection to lean on. It isn't everything but it isn't nothing either.

Yes, there's all kinds of soul-searching and philosophizing that humans need to do to figure out how best to live that may call on us to bring certain parts of ourselves more into balance, but I'm not trying to resolve that here. I'm not trying to tell anyone how to live their best life. And I'm not advocating for self-sacrifice on principle. I'm just trying to tell those whose condition currently prevents them from feeling something everyone tells us we should that it's okay with me for them to be as they are.

I want healing for everyone but in the meantime, we need to stop shaming and invalidating people for the ways in which they fall short.

My message to others who might be inclined to beat themselves up over this:

Your love still counts. Your compassion still has value. Your care for others still creates goodness in the world....

Even
If
You
Don't
Love
Yourself.

(But I hope someday you will because you deserve 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





Tuesday, October 29, 2019

To Those Who Don't Know What To Say

I have been very open about having experienced trauma and having a resulting mental health condition (PTSD) (see, for example, here).

Yet very few people (including friends) have said anything to me about it. In many cases, it seems, people have stopped interacting with me altogether to avoid the issue. When they do interact with me, most pretend there's no issue at all. Meanwhile if someone suffers a physical health issue, people often spring into action with cards, gifts and offers of support (which isn't to say that we do a consistently good job of supporting those with physical health issues either, or that the response should necessarily be the same, but at least it seems that more people have some sense of what to do or say and fewer people respond by just ignoring the person and/or their circumstances....).

I get it. This is tough. But we have to do better: not only so we can support people we purport to care about but also so we can learn from them and create a better society in which people aren't stigmatized and discriminated against. Kind of important, IMO....

If you're one of those people who knows someone who may have experienced trauma and/or a mental health issue, and genuinely don't know what to say, here's my non-expert advice as someone who has grown to feel very alienated/isolated/stigmatized by my own experience.

1) Say something. Honestly the worst thing you can do, in my view, is act like someone doesn't exist, or pretend there's no issue even though they've been very open about it. By refusing to say anything at all you're reinforcing the message that there's something shameful about what they're experiencing. Please don't do this. It's not nice and can be profoundly harmful to someone who may already be struggling with a great deal of shame and stigma.

2) Start simple. Use your "not knowing what to say" as an opportunity to engage humbly with the person and learn from them what they might need or want from you. A simple, "How are you doing?" goes a long way. Or maybe, "I know you're going through something difficult and I have to admit I don't have much knowledge about this. Is there any way I can support you?"

3) Remember: they're still the same person you knew before. If you really don't feel comfortable addressing the issue directly, at least treat them like a human being. "Hello." or "Want to get a coffee sometime?" are all icebreakers that work just fine. You can still treat them like a normal person whom you know and care about. You can still reach out about your shared history and interests. They haven't magically transformed into something wholly different.

4) Put some effort into educating yourself about what they're going through. Plenty of resources exist, right at our fingertips. We know how to research. Start perhaps by learning more about trauma (if that's the issue) and what it means to become more trauma-informed. If there's a mental health condition involved, learn what that particular condition may involve and what it doesn't. There are all kinds of reputable resources available. It may seem like a lot of work but so many people experience trauma and mental health related issues that not only will you be improving your ability to speak to the person in question, you will also be enhancing your relational competence and awareness in a way that will help you understand and support others in the future. If the person is really close to you, or you are in a position of power and authority and have an obligation to get it right, then consider consulting with professionals (and getting some emotional support for your own needs).  

--Here's an example (which I haven't vetted) of what you might find if you do a three second google search (search terms: "How to support a friend with PTSD?"): https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/helping-someone-with-ptsd.htm. See how easy this is? I suggest reading a few different sources to be a good researcher (luckily, as professionals, we know how to research, right?) and don't forget to keep in mind how a person's experiences may be impacted by the intersecting ways in which they experience marginalization, so please be sure to adapt your research accordingly. Genuine interest/curiosity is an asset.

5) No matter what research you do, never forget that each person is an individual. What you learn via your own research can guide you and give you some context for what they might be experiencing but never allow that to override or prevent you from listening to their own expression of their needs and experiences. If they seem interested in speaking about the issue, listen to what they say and learn from them. If they seem interested in sharing their experiences, invite them to participate in situations where these issues are being discussed, especially if their interests are directly affected. Treat them like the intelligent autonomous individuals that they are (as I touched on here).

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

Friday, October 25, 2019

Messages of Positivity and Hope (It's Complicated)

I have a complicated relationship with hope.

It might seem like I'm incredibly depressed (speaking in the colloquial sense, not the medical one, although probably both apply) and it may even be true at this stage, but it's not the result of a lack of hope.

Rather, my own personal relationship with hope is constant, active and toxic. Perhaps even the most abusive relationship of my life.

Believe it or not, I have an incredibly powerful propensity to be hopeful, even when there is every reason for pessimism. Just give me some glimmer of hope and there's a good chance that I will seize upon it, embrace it, and eagerly follow it heedlessly wherever it may lead.

Growing up in poverty, I never thought for a moment that I wouldn't be something amazing when I grew up. The only question was what held most meaning for me: a veterinarian? a singer? a writer? maybe a lawyer? (whether landing on lawyer was a wise choice is a question for another day, haha...)

I always want to believe. I often do believe. In what's over the next horizon. In what happens when the storm I'm in passes. Hope, always hope. 

I've always survived by believing things will get better. If I can just get past my currently bleak circumstances, then maybe it will not only get better, it will all turn out to have been exactly what I needed. It will lead to something meaningful and amazing. I won't be happy to have suffered, but future bright and shiny me will look back on all that I've been through and say, "It was worth it. It was all leading here."

Sometimes I even thought I arrived at the shimmering beautiful future-world-of destiny that made all past suffering worthwhile. Maybe it was a sense of meaning and purpose in my career, or a close friendship or romance that I thought would never end (spoiler alert: they all change and/or end). Maybe I just finally felt some sense of inner peace that made me think: it's okay, I've arrived, I'm good now.

But here's the thing about hope for me: it's a demon cloaking itself as a friend.

Surviving several bad things didn't exempt me from suffering new ones, just when I was least expecting it, just when my BFF "Hope" and I were cuddled in a comfy embrace. The universe didn't say, "Okay you've had enough. Now enjoy your peace and happiness. You've earned it."

Sometimes the new storm came from outside me, striking like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky, reaching out for me in particular, seeming to laugh at me for thinking that blue skies and sunshine could ever be intended for me. Other times, it came from within. All was well outside. Skies were blue. Birds were singing. But my messed up body and brain declared, "Haha, nope. Not yours. Not for you!" and attacked from within.

For some people, finding hope again might be the goal. For me, it is terrifying and foolish. I yearn for it and have a strong desire for a stable relationship with it, but that's not what it has ever offered me. When it's good to me, everything is perfect and skies are blue. But when it turns on me or leads me down a dangerous path, I realize (too late) that it was anything but friendly. I would have been far better off if I never embraced it.

The complexity here is that my current sense of hopelessness isn't just a problem with my mood. It has the quality of being an inexorable conclusion from lived experience. I want hope, but it hurts me, again and again. I've finally reached the point where I'm not so sure I want it anymore, and--even if I do--I'm not so sure I can believe it anymore.

As far as mood goes, the will to hope/optimism remains powerful in me, stupidly, foolishly and dangerously so. If I could choose a pill to strengthen it or kill it, I'd think very long and hard about those options. The latter may very well be the wiser, safer choice.

So when I hear the messages reaching out to those who are suffering, saying "Hey, it will get better! Don't lose hope! Just do x, y, z," I hesitate. I hear echoes of that toxic dangerous faux-friend of mine. It becomes clear that I can't trust the speaker dangling a bright and shiny future in front of me. They just don't understand the realities of the world as people like me have experienced it. My lived experience is something they seem either unwilling or unable to account for. I will not take their hand when they offer it. I'm not making that mistake of being led down a path by a soft hand and a warm smile just to be dropped off a cliff again.

All of the above is just my own experience, but I doubt I'm the only one who has a complicated relationship with shiny optimistic messaging. For some, it may be exactly what's needed. For others, it may just make us feel more alienated, and less understood than ever. If someone's primary message to me is "don't lose hope," then they truly have no idea what an @sshole hope can be, which means they don't really see me and my experience, and don't believe me when I try to tell them about it.

I would propose an alternative to use instead of, or in addition to, messages of hope. I think our message should be clear that we are not a fickle friend like hope. Our support will be there regardless of the ups and downs. Instead of (or in addition to) future-oriented messaging like "It will get better," and "You can improve," let's be sure not to leave out the messages that tell people that they still have value and we will be there for them whether things improve or not. Like, "Hey, I see you! I don't doubt what you're going through and have been through. I hope it gets better, though I understand why you might not. I totally get why you might be ready to tell hope to screw off after all it's put you through. But one thing I want to be clear about: whether it gets better or not, I'm here. I see you. I'll accept and accommodate you."

Like I've said before, presence is more helpful to some of us than hope. For me, hope is a gaslighting jerk who's lifted me up only to drop me down a cliff too many times and I don't want him in my life right now. But I do want a sense of community, acceptance, and support, while I do my best to navigate how things are right now, whether they get better or not.

Let's be there for each other, without presupposing or requiring each other to have any particular orientation or attitude towards something as messy and complicated as hope. Let's honour our differing experiences and just be there.

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