The Flash Technique (Manfield, Lovett, Engel, & Manfield, 2017) developed by Dr. Phil Manfield has shown that moving a memory is possible without directly activating a memory or directly reprocessing it. How it happens and what is exactly happening is still up for discussion (See Dr. Ricky Greenwald’s blog HERE, particularly in the discussion section). Nonetheless, I have combined a bunch of ideas and approaches that helps a wide range of clients, particularly, first responders, police officers, vets, victims of crime, and people with addictions. I have also used it to help stabilize someone’s addiction recovery when they find themselves substituting their addictions. It is more than possible that what I am suggesting has been done before but I have not heard of it yet.
I have been searching to find something that can help stabilize someone’s addiction either by stabilizing the symptoms of trauma or the addiction (as if they were separate) through targeting the “addiction memory” (Boening, 2001) as a trauma. What I have found by combining flash technique with Ego State Therapy and a solid conceptualization of addiction in an intensive format helps stabilize both trauma, dissociation, and addiction. I am in full agreement with Dr. Jamie Marich blog (2019) on EMDR 2.5 where a solid understanding of the EMDR protocol combined with various other trauma techniques like titration, pendulation, using fragments, body mapping, and body sensations are helpful in preparing clients for reprocessing, particularly in Phase 2 of EMDR. With that said, what the flash technique has shown me is that it offers something else, in combination with Ego State Therapy, mainly stabilization of the memory system, creates a common goal, and provides access and resources to the unconscious mind. I find that the case conceptualization is particularly important because it provides the rationale needed to stabilize and paired with Ego State Therapy it provides the structure of the psyche. Which can be an unknown to the client at this stage of treatment. The case conceptualization that Dr. Marich and I are producing currently is “Addiction as Dissociation.” You can see an overview HERE.
The flash technique offers these criteria before using it: (1) it is for high impact trauma/high SUDS and (2) be mindful of feeder memories. On the point of feeder memories, I find that this approach helps eliminate that issue to a large degree but you still need to rule out significant dissociation, bi-polar or mania, psychotic symptoms before performing the flash technique as you would in Phase 1 of EMDR.
To me, what the flash technique offers is different from standard resourcing, RDI, or traditional preparation skills like grounding and is more like titration and pendulation.
Standard EMDR preparation skills like safe/calm place, container, healing light, or butterfly hug do not require accessing or activation of traumatic memories, however, it can happen with more complex presentations. From my understanding, titration and pendulation in the resourcing and preparation phase 2 is about working with painful material but in moderation. This is where preparation/resourcing 2.5 comes in to play. Dr. Marich’s point, besides that we should cautious of the latest fades, holds that because titration and pendulation do similar things to the flash technique. I fully agree because body awareness is powerful and allows the clients to gain experience holding the pain in their physical awareness. However, the flash technique does not require this. Titration and pendulation provide a “toe in the water” process, whereas the flash technique does not. However, clients still needs body awareness to reprocess so 2.5 skills will still have to be done as well before moving forward in the phases of EMDR and for EMDR to be the most effective.
There are some other aspects that the Flash Technique is different from standard resourcing, titration, and pendulation.
1) In Dr. Ricky Greenwald’s blog, and quoting Bruce Ecker in the discussion section, the flash technique may be taking out some of the fear of addressing the memory. I think this is where titration and pendulation are similar but direct contact with the overwhelming experience is not required in the flash technique.
2) By pairing the distressing memories with a positive place provides the opportunity for discord, which memory reconsolidation requires (Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley, 2012). Activation was also thought to be required in memory reconsolidation but this is what makes the flash technique different and possibly new.
3) Dual Attention Stimulus is used in Flash Technique and not typically in titration and pendulation.
4) Subliminal suggestions are powerful (just look at advertising) and when the memories are put on the back burner (possibly working memory) and a more positive experience is focused on, it appears that some shift in where the memory is stored is able to happen without activation. From my experience with this bulk format, when the more unconscious ego states are ready to let go of the pain of the traumas and have connected to the meeting area, they will let go. They feel more empowered to take on their stuff. Presentations where people are consciously or unconsciously bonded to their traumas, which are particularly in more shame-based presentation and developmental traumas, then memories are not going to move until there is cohesion in the ego state meeting area. However, the flash technique is not typically for these types of traumas and where titration and pendulation can be more helpful.
Where the flash technique is different is that it appears moves the memory… or memories as I found out about a year ago while working with a first responder and they said, “there are like 9 calls that stay with me still that are off the chart.” Ever curious, I thought about a bulk option.
What I am presenting here in the scripts below is an ideal and mostly general because each session is individual to the client. I do suggest consultation around this, particularly if is not clear. There is a level of finesse in this approach and it is not something that someone can teach per say because it is based on felt experience. This felt experience is based on the dual attunement that is critical to use as a guide. I have taught a handful of consultees this bulk technique,” who were first trained by Dr. Phil Manfield in the technique. “Bulk Flash,” as I am calling it, has gotten a similar response when they used it. I have done it with a dozen or so clients that I have used it and I am now offering it here to help others. For me, I have been using it to help first responders continue their work and to stabilize active addictions, which is quite promising.
Before you read further, you will need to know and feel comfortable with Ego State Therapy (or IFS), and the Theory of Structural Dissociation. I do not go into it too much here because it would be too much to cover. I do suggest Robin Shapiro’s Easy Ego State Interventions, Sandra Paulsen’s: When There are No Words and Looking Through the Eyes, Andrew Sheubert’s use of his RUG-C, Shirley Jean Schmidt’s: Development Needs and Meeting Strategy (DNMS), and Dissociation and Addiction Resources page with Institute for Creative Mindfulness: HERE.
Here is the set-up with some reasoning sprinkled in:
After the conscious intake, I do an unconscious intake by doing the dissociative meeting area based on Dissociative Table by Watkins and Watkins (1997) with every client. Whether it is metaphorical, analogous, or actual the ego state meeting area is a part of the clients lived experience one way or another, whether they are conscious of it or not. A main point of the meeting area is to see how conscious the client is of their unconscious process, let alone, how willing they are to go there. Another way of putting it is: the meeting area also helps see how willing the unconscious is to let them in.
What the ego state meeting area represents to me is a look into the psyche or “looking under the hood.” The aspects of self that present (and who don’t originally present) in the meeting area are what make this person, this person. The meeting area also allows them to see this aspect of themselves too, at least their conscious mind. This is a big moment for the conscious mind. This is how the “Eureka” moments work; the conscious aspects of the mind realizes what the unconscious has been saying all these years. The experiences and non-experiences alike that the client holds, have made them who they are today and I know that I am not only talking to the person that is sitting in front of me; I know that I am talking to every person they have ever been. Who they have been can hold the encapsulated memories (Scaer, 2010) of what happened to them. Or another way of saying it, they are personifications of those held traumatic experiences. All trauma impacts temporal time and space. Untreated trauma continues that trend to the point that the core beliefs and the emotion felt still stay with the person and is usually fragmented. However, as we know the body keeps the score. Trauma separates us because there was a before, during, and after a traumatic event so everyone who experiences trauma can feel a sense of separateness until it is resolved.
I offer this to clients: “I know that I am not only talking to the person that is sitting in front of me. I know that I am talking to every person you, you have ever been. I would like the yous that you have been to have opportunity to get the therapy that they did not get at the time.”
I then ask, “Where would be a comfortable place for you to meet who you have been?” “A meeting of the minds so to speak.”
This is a continuation of the assessment phase, meaning that I am looking to see how aware they are of their processes/who or what parts of them shows up. If and when there appears to be an understanding of the parts and their purpose (I use RUG-C or DNMS a lot here), I move forward by filling out the space by making it real with descriptions and see who shows up. If no one shows, then consider the broad spectrum of dissociation and do psycho-education and body awareness…)
I then ask, “Does it feel like any part of you is missing?”… “Or does it feel like there are parts that may be curious but are not ready to join quite yet?”
(If there are parts missing then suggest that this is the opportunity for them to listen, if they can and want to.)
I welcome any part that may be on the periphery to come in when they feel comfortable. Here I prepare to teach the container with psycho-education about the brain. For instance, the first five minutes of the movie Inside Out is extremely helpful here. I offer the clients and parts to fill the container (without eye movements for now) with the old memories that feel like they are still staying. I suggest that it is like a library, in such that there may be volumes of books or like a movie collection. I offer them to put any old tapes/movies of past experiences that they would like to put into the container, to put them there. I also offer around this time “that this is a space for the kids to be kids and adults to be adults.” Once everything is put away, I ask “is there any feeling that comes up as a result of having some separation from the bad experiences?” “Where do you feel it in your body?” (I will do a resource install or Brainspotting Resource Spot here, when appropriate). I then suggest that the client can put the container in waiting room like the flash technique offers. But before it is put away, I will then ask them (or really the conscious self), without opening any of them, “How many are there?” and then “How big are the volumes?” Just take note of them.
Then I set-up the flash/blink with a moment of joy and do the flash technique.
What I have found is that, after doing the first round of flash/blink, what was once 15 volumes are now 3-5 volumes and the parts that did not present earlier, start presenting more. I ask about body shifts and have them simply notice it. I do the flash technique again and check in with the meeting area to see what they might be noticing. I then have them check the volumes again. Usually it stays around 3-5 and the SUDS is significantly less. Clients also report that the volumes feel lighter, are smaller, and/or are more distant. They also report that the parts are lighter and more engaged. Sometimes the backdrop of the meeting area has lightened up, distance has been decreased, and more interaction is available. Utilizing Paulsen’s concept of building Ego strength, here is where to do it through relationship building and conflict resolution.
Some bullet points to consider from my experience of doing this so far...
1)This may become their “safe place.”
2)You may have to create a more separate work environment, suggested in the dissociative table were one can combine their efforts towards their treatment goals.
3)At some point, when appropriate, the future self/recovery self as a way of the client seeing what their long-term goals are, to increase motivation, and provide an adult to be present for the younger versions.
4)If the person is bonded or addicted to their traumatic memories, as Van der Kolk has suggested in several writings () there will be mixed emotions about letting things go. Utilize Motivational Interviewing with the parts. Understanding how addiction presents in mental health and how to treat it will help the client successfully complete treatment.
5)Borderline clients, from my experience, tend to avoid establishing the meeting area so more resourcing is needed to establish the meeting area.
6)I mostly do what I have presented here in a 4-hour intensive session.
Next, I will more than likely go into the Toxic Shame: Shape and Color Set-up that I have written about. See my blog post: HERE. I then do into their traumas in a chronological fashion, unless there is a reason not to. For addiction: I make sure that I targeted their “addiction memory” with the standard protocol with the one minor alteration as outline in a previous blog that I did. You can access it: HERE.
The long and short of it is that I find that once the inner children have the space to be kids, without the responsibility of being in charge of the outcomes of life, and they can trust the adult in charge, they tend to let go of their stuff without direct reprocessing. I do go back and check in on all of their memories over the course of treatment but often times now that they have their inner-children, they are good to go for a while. You still want to process all of the memories as Flash Technique suggests.
Complex PTSD is complex because of the dissociation profile involved (which includes addictions). I have found that this is a great start for clients to build off of because now clients have a conscious awareness of the psyche structure to work with and a conceptualization that validates their unconscious processes. This makes sense because when the unconscious separation and alienation that trauma causes becomes a conscious unified front, people feel more connected to their treatment goals and whole to their purpose in life. Taking the sting out of therapy with the flash technique helps clients start to put the memories where they need to be in order for adaptive mindset and lifestyle to take root.
Growing up in Northeast Ohio, the first time I heard the word tribe was in reference to the Cleveland Indians. Our major league baseball team is nicknamed “The Tribe,” and it was a common phrase uttered in my household. Like many young Cleveland fans, I was spoon-fed the story that our ball club was named to honor Louis Sockalexis, the first full-blooded Native American individual to play in the major leagues (on the then Cleveland Spiders) from 1897-1899. Of course there is not a great deal of truth in that story, as journalist Joe Posanski unpacks in his excellent 2014 article. Yet any time I heard challenges for the Indians to change their name, my rather conservative family would say, “But it was named to honor the first Native American to play in the major leagues.”
As we say in circles of recovery, anything after but is generally bullshit.
The Cleveland Indians are once again rethinking their name, as are many sports teams that trivialize or demean Native Americans by their moniker. The time is truly now for white people in positions of power to do a great deal of rethinking, and that includes we white folks who’ve grow so accustomed to using the word tribe without fully considering its origins and the intentions of our use. A cursory glance on Instagram reveals memes like Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe and Find Your Tribe—Love Them Hard. I especially notice this tendency in white women endeavoring to be part of conscious culture, and quite frankly, it’s long bothered me.
As I came of age, I encountered other uses of tribe aside from the nickname of my favorite baseball team, including the twelve tribes of Israel, tribal dance, tribal warfare, and usages of tribe in other Indigenous histories. Ever the word geek, it’s my natural tendency to turn toward etymology. The English word tribe is Latin in origin, referencing the “tri” or three-part organization of the Roman state along ethnic lines. In English, tribe generally refers to a grouping of people who have something in common, whether that be ethnic or cultural similarities. In history and anthropology, the general connotation is that a tribe exists within a larger nation, country, or some other distinct group. As it relates to Native Americans, tribe is a Federal or State government distinction to denote enclaves within the various nations. In speaking with my closest Native American friend about this issue, she shared that she sees tribe more as a colonizing government term rather than a distinction that has actual meaning to her as a Native woman. In their 2001 article The Trouble with Tribe, Chris Love elucidates that there are so many meanings and connotations to the word tribe, it’s difficult to have clarity. If you come from an ethnic background where the word tribe or your personal connection to tribe has a great deal of meaning to you, claim that connection if you chose.
Yet as white people from European backgrounds, do we really have that right? My gut sense is no, especially if our intent in using the word is just to appear more “conscious,” “inclusive,” or even “hip” without doing the real work behind it. I see what progressives and conscious communities are trying to do with the word tribe—viewing it as an extension of the “family of choice” concept that is so vitally important to those of use, especially those of us who identify as LGBT+. Yet there are two problems here: the tendency to get cliquish in the name of consciousness, and very real possibility that we are getting inappropriately appropriative just to sound cool.
When I first heard tribe used in the conscious community, my stomach churned and signaled danger. In 2011, I took a training in a popular dance method at an elite yoga center. Everyone in that community kept referring to themselves as being “in the tribe,” or “finding my tribe,” suggesting that outsiders somehow didn’t get them, or even that outsiders or other divisives were not welcome. This bothered me so much that when members of Dancing Mindfulness, a dance community that I went on to create in 2012, started using the word tribe with regularity, I got worried. I expressed my worry about the cliquish nature of the word to several in our leadership, suggesting that I preferred a term like a community. For me, community suggests room to grow. And yes, I identify as having many members of my family of choice (some from the Dancing Mindfulness community and others from outside of it). Yet I’ve never felt the need to use the word “tribe” to express any of this.
The bigger problem that white people must examine is whether or not we are using the term tribe to appear to gain social capital with others. Is there something more hip about using a word like tribe instead of community, circle, family of choice, or even “my people”? I don’t have a full answer to this question that I’m willing to put out there definitively as I am still doing so much of this work for myself. I am, however, encouraging others who have a tendency to use this word to engage in some inquiry about why and how you use it.
There can be a fine line between cultural adaptation and cultural appropriation, between honoring someone or some group and just using them. Take Louis Sockalexis, the member of the Penobscot nation, whom scores of Cleveland Indians fans maintain that they “honor” by capitalizing on the name and, until very recently, the racist “Chief Wahoo” mascot. Sockalexis was openly mocked and tortured for his heritage during his tenure playing professional baseball, and when he died at the age of 42 after a long battle of what we now know as alcoholism, sportswriters referred to the cause of his career decline and death as “the Indian weakness.” Do we consider this undeniable heritage of pain and trauma when we are quick to defend ourselves as “honoring” a culture? Do we consider this undeniable heritage of pain and trauma when we use a word like “tribe”?
You may be experiencing a degree of defensiveness right now by engaging this question, especially if you are a white person who uses the word tribe or engages in any practice from other cultures, which includes yoga and Eastern meditation practices. My suggestion is to notice what it’s bringing up in you and do the deep digging. Several months ago, I was rightfully called out on how I used a Native American song and practice within a Dancing Mindfulness class. I am grateful to the young Indigenous person who felt empowered enough to do it. Of course, I felt defensive at first, even drawing back to some of the same excuses I heard from other Cleveland Indians fans (e.g., “I was just trying to honor,” or “I want to be inclusive”). The more I sat with the feelings, the more I realized there was work to do and that the young person was correct. Using something without knowing the full truth of the source or, in many cases, getting necessary permission is not okay for anyone who calls themselves conscious.
As someone who teaches and also refuses to copyright my adapted approach to universal practice that is fundamentally Eastern in origin (it’s not mine to copyright), I’ve had to do the hard work around going to the source for teachings while also examining how teachings can be adapted for Western and clinical audiences. I do not have all of the answers and I am sure that my exploration will lead me to discover other changes I need to make if I truly want to be anti-racist. My challenge to you, my friends, is to join me on this journey of self-inquiry and growing more comfortable with being uncomfortable, especially when you are invited to rethink an attachment.
In the Spring of 2004, I made what would prove to be the best educational decision of my life. Although I commuted to a small Catholic college about sixty miles south of where I lived in Youngstown, Ohio, I had the opportunity to transfer up to six courses in that Masters in Counseling program as a transient student. Purely to save on some driving time, I decided to take several classes at Youngstown State. One of those courses was Principles of Substance Abuse Counseling and the instructor was none other than Jerry Carter, the long-time director of the Neil Kennedy Recovery Clinic. Neil Kennedy was the first free-standing treatment center in the United States not attached to a hospital and studying with Jerry was nothing short of a master class in the history of addiction and recovery.
During one particular class on a breezy April night, the topic was shame. Understanding and working to heal the wounds of shame, as I’ve come to understand in my own career, is absolutely necessary for working with addiction. During that class, Jerry got vulnerable, sharing his own history as an adult child of an alcoholic and the recovery he chose to embrace. Just before break, he read the poem “My Name is Shame” by Rev. Leo Booth and the late John Bradshaw. Of course, he had a version of it from an old textbook that is much better than any of the abridged versions I’ve since been able to find online. This piece gives voice to shame, and then engages in dialogue with an affected individual. Jerry read in a way that pierced my soul, and I felt that the words were written just for me. I was sobbing throughout much of the reading; I couldn’t have controlled this display of emotion in such a public setting even if I tried. And then he read the line that would prove to me the path forward for my healing: By loving you I am free.
By loving my whole self, even my shame, I will be free.
Jerry dismissed the rest of the class to break and came over to me. He just stood there, in witnessing presence, as I let it all out. When I managed to take my face out of my hands to look up to him, he put his hand very gently and appropriately on my shoulder and looked right at me in a way I’d never been looked at before. He saw me. In a way that I had always wanted my own father to see me. In a way that said, “I get it… and you are not alone.”
No words were exchanged. There were no words necessary.
I went out into the wind of that April night and for the first time in my own recovery, felt a sense of deep hope. I was just under two years sober yet still in a very bad place with my own mental health symptoms, which included chronic dissociation and fleeting suicidal tendencies. My own grandfather, whom I was living with after my return from serving in Bosnia-Hercegovina, was in his last days, dying from cancer. Working at the site I was at for practicum and my first internship was triggering me a great deal, and that eventually led me into EMDR therapy and the deepest layers of my trauma healing. Looking back on it now, that experience in class set the wheels of this healing in motion, as this very compassionate teacher taught me that they key to healing from it all was indeed to love it all.
My light and my darkness.
The joy and the sorrow.
The humanity and the divinity.
Jerry Carter passed away on August 5, 2020. Like many of my great teachers who are no longer with us, he has just left the body. His soul is eternal. As is his influence on my life, and the lives of countless others. During his funeral Mass on August 8, the priest noted how the five wax nails in the Easter Paschal Candle represent the five wounds of Christ at the Crucifixion.
He then he noted, “And like Christ, Jerry transformed these wounds and hurts into healing.”
And that’s when I began crying like I did that night back in 2004. Only this time my tears came with a wave of gratitude for my beloved teacher and everything he stood for in being a witness to hope and healing. My entire life is marked by spiritual and religious teachers who love to talk about the Divine but do very little to be that healing presence for others. Not Jerry. He was the hands and face and voice of Christ, even in his role as a teacher, during my dark night of the soul. That’s the kind of teacher I want to be.
I know that Jerry wasn’t perfect, and he’d be the first to admit that. I realize how much the changing politics of the addiction treatment field deeply impacted him in the later years of his career, and he often felt paralyzed to do the work of healing as he knew it needed to be done. I ended up finishing my counseling internship at Neil Kennedy when Jerry was still in charge and came to understand many of these realities. Yet Jerry was a teacher to me in the truest sense of the word because not only did he met me in the fullness of my humanity that memorable night, he continued to see me and honor me as the years danced on. A few days after Jerry’s death, another person in leadership at Neil Kennedy at the time shared a memory of how much Jerry regarded me and that he was overjoyed I brought music and expressive arts to the clinic.
“He noticed that?” I thought, barely even remembering it myself.
Of course he did. That’s Jerry Carter.
As my public career began to grow, Jerry was present for almost every local and many state conference continuing education events that I began offering as a presenter. Every time, he would come up to thank me, beaming with pride. It is such a beautiful experience for an educator when one of her own teachers shows up to learn something new, and I hope that I am growing into this kind of person; always willing to soak up more knowledge, especially from those who are younger than I. Jerry remained on my email list up until the time of his death, and whenever I would publish a book or have some other news to report, he would reach out with some variation of, “Congratulations, I’m proud of you.” At events and in emails I would return his beautiful compliments with, “Thank you, Jerry… you do realize that you taught me all the important stuff, right?”
In the week since Jerry’s death, in the middle of this turbulent year full of loss and turmoil, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on that important stuff and what it means to be a teacher, or even a guru. Guru is a Sanskrit term often used in Eastern spiritual context that literally means “one who removes the darkness and reveals the light.” Jerry would never have considered himself a guru and that is what made him one in the truest sense. I’ve studied the work of many teachers who bill themselves as gurus or otherwise empowered/ordained in their religious traditions. I’ve even studied with many of such figures personally. And none of them hold a candle to Jerry Carter. Because in his role as both a clinician and a teacher, Jerry carried that light of revelation without the fanfare. Carrying the light was so natural for him because that’s just who Jerry was/is as a person—fully human and fully divine. In modern times we helpers marvel at Brené Brown’s work about shame, just as we did about John Bradshaw and Claudia Black a generation before. And though I admire them as public figures, none of them touched my life as much as Jerry did sharing from his lived experience and reading the poem that night.
So many of the folks that I now teach and mentor wonder if their words or influence will make a difference because they don’t have the reach of a Brené Brown, or other commonly cited names in their given field. Nonsense. If you have a story of hope and recovery and a light to shine, you will touch someone’s life just by being who you are…especially if you can meet them in the fullness of their brokenness and shame, as Jerry met me. A guru sees the wholeness that is really there underneath it all and can hold the light for you until you are able to see it for yourself. You are all gurus, and in this dark and broken world, we need you.
Be the candle.
The Price of Inadvertently Telling People I am NOT The Therapist They Are Looking For by Nikki Gordon, LPC
When I launched my private practice in the middle of a global pandemic, I was well aware that unprecedented times would call for unconventional measures-at least when it came to getting the word out that I was now a solo practitioner. Fueled by my passion and drive for all things trauma, I plunged headlong into the business world, fortified by caffeine, sarcasm, and an amazing cheering section of fellow professionals. If anything was going to get this done, we were going to have to get it started and I wanted to be sure that my message was heard far and near, so that those who wanted to do the trauma work knew where the resources were. I was certain that my message would be well received, being a member of a community that is infamous for the amount of trauma that has shaped its demographics-much to my chagrin, I may have been a little overly confident in how that message would land, and I was made aware of that one evening when I received an email from someone who had heard my first attempts at spreading the news; an underwriting campaign on the local public radio station. “I heard your ad, and I want to do trauma work but not with you because of the other populations you work with, so can you refer me to someone else? You must know people”. I was baffled by the statement of ‘other populations’-I work with trauma survivors! Domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, PTSD, first responders, law enforcem……….oh. Oh boy. Ah, so that’s it. There’s that “other population” you speak of. Law enforcement. One more time for the people in the back-I WORK WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT.
It never occurred to me when I approved that ad copy, or when I wrote my website, or drafted my Psychology Today profile, that someone would read those five little words and decide that I was not worthy as a therapist. It did not cross my mind, that when I put out there via a brief statement of populations that I work with, I would be inciting vitriolic ire that would inflame someone’s righteous indignation to the point of denying themselves their own healing. Instead of working with someone educated and experienced in healing the very thing that tortures their own soul, they would choose the alternative simply because I have held space for men and women that have seen horrors that the rest of the population cannot begin to fathom; that my chair has held the officer that holds their head in their hands while they take a deep breath to steady themselves, because they just interviewed a victim and they’re working to process what they were just told and not vomit; that I have stood in below zero weather behind a long line of officers and first responders as they lined the street waiting for the hearse carrying their slain brother, in case one of them needed me.
In those moments, they deserved compassion as much as anyone. In those hours, and days, and weeks, their brains witnessed, and didn’t process, and didn’t resolve trauma, the same way anyone else’s would. Trauma is an injury-the working definition of trauma is a wound. My charge, my mission, my work, is to recognize and support the healing of those wounds. They did not stop being human, or experiencing the impact of trauma, because of their chosen profession. This concept seemed firmly rooted in the Occam’s Razor principle - the simplest, most obvious explanation is the one we should go with. That explanation is that I am a trauma therapist, and they had experienced trauma.
You see, there is this concept called dialectical thinking that we have lost sight of. When we address something through a dialectical lens, we are examining diametrically opposed pieces of information, or opinions, and working to find a middle way, often holding that two things can be true at the same time. I can acknowledge that policing in America needs new policies and procedures in place to eradicate institutional racism AND I can provide critical incident services for a department. I am able to denounce police brutality and demand reform AND engage in EMDR therapy with a suicidal officer diagnosed with PTSD. I continue to advocate for changing how mental health crises are addressed and ceasing to use our law enforcement agencies as social workers and therapists AND hold space for the people that have witnessed the very worst of what one human can do to another.
It is a slippery, dangerous slope that we start descending down when we become so convinced that we possess everything we need to reject out of hand anyone or anything that does not strictly adhere to our beliefs. Even more destructive is when we begin to use that belief system as judge and jury, accepting and rejecting entire human beings based on our own snap judgements. Rarely are things what they seem on the surface, and you miss a lot of life along the way when you narrow your field of view to only those things that enhance your confirmation bias.
This little foray in the public broadcasting world netted me some new pieces of information-first, apparently, I was successful in letting people know why I’m not the therapist they are looking for-an expensive lesson in more ways than one, to be sure. From an entire month-long underwriting campaign, there was only that single email-but it spoke on behalf of an entire community, and the messaging was the loudest voice in the room. I can assure you, the message was received because there was no mistaking it AND I will continue to place my faith in the humans that I serve, because that it is who I am as a therapist. Now, to move forward deliberately with the intention that those three little letters set, instead of the blinders that those five words apply.
“Thank you for your vulnerability, Dr. Marich.”
Since coming out unapologetically as a woman in recovery from a dissociative disorder in 2018, I’ve received so many messages and social media replies that begin with this greeting. Being “out” has many meanings and layers for me—I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, even though my advisers in the mental health field cautioned me about the perils of broadcasting it. In 2015 I made the decision to come out in every area of my life—to my professional following and to my conservative family—as bisexual, even though I never kept it a secret from my friends. Inspired by a Robert Ackerman teaching, I realized that I could not be a healthy woman in long-term recovery unless honesty prevailed about everything. And this led me to coming out with the dissociative disorder. Dissociative disorders are still highly stigmatized and largely misunderstood in the mental health professions, let alone by the general public. So many clinicians are afraid of us destabilizing and if the public even recognizes what a dissociative disorder is, old school portrayals of multiple personality disorders as seen in the movies generally serve as the association. In reality we are just people with many parts that form to protect the core self or to meet a need, generally in response to trauma. Sometimes the parts play well with each other, other times they don’t. With each vulnerable step I’ve taken further out of the shame closet, especially as a public figure in my field, I’ve learned an important lesson about vulnerability—people are simultaneously in awe of it and terrified of its power.
In this piece, which I write on my eighteenth recovery anniversary, I share what being out in my position has taught me, and continues to teach me about vulnerability. Before deepening this exploration, let’s get on the same page about what vulnerability means. Even though Brené Brown has made the word vulnerability popular in her stellar work over the last decade, people do not seem aware of its true meaning. Vulnerability is not just something you can simply define by one of Brené’s often-memed quotes. Vulnerability is more than just taking a risk or putting yourself out there into the metaphorical arena. At its core, being vulnerable is about engaging in trauma work, aware that this healing work can and usually does cause more pain in the process. If you’ve ever taken a course with me or have read one of my books, you know that I am a language nerd, and that my working definition of trauma is any unhealed wound—physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual. This simplified definition derives from the word origin of the English word trauma—it comes from the Greek word meaning wound. Well guess what? Vulnerability comes from the Latin vulnarare, meaning to wound; another form, vulnerabilis, means injurious or wounding.
While the pop psychology understanding of vulnerability implies that one might get hurt if they want to take risks to grow, I will go a step farther and contend that hurt of all kind is inevitable. Here’s the lesson I’ve learned in my processes of coming out: Vulnerability is facing our wounding head-on and then deciding what we’re going to do in response to its impact. Are we going to ignore the wounds and thus open ourselves up to being hurt even more, or will we take the chance of feeling the pain we’ve stuffed down all the way through in order to experience freedom on the other side? I will spare you the details of my entire trauma narrative, yet I'll paint enough of a picture to qualify. By age four it was clear to me that I was too sensitive to survive the life I’d been dealt. By age nine I was already thinking of ways to destroy myself because I didn’t feel safe either at home or at school, and by 19 I was in full-blown addiction, the ultimate response of a developing brain that was bonded to dissociation in order to survive. I was born suseptible; life made me increasingly more vulnerable. Hurt was my baseline, and even though I got sober at 23, it wasn’t until 25 that the chronic suicidal ideation largely dissipated. Had I kept all of this bottled in, assuming I would have survived past my thirties, I’d still be hurting, albeit in a much more pervasive way and I’d not be writing this today as a sober woman. Sharing the pain with others is imperative, and I first learned how to do this privately with an amazingly trauma-focused sponsor in a 12-step program, then through high quality trauma therapy. I agree with Brené’s fundamental teaching that shame cannot survive when it is shared in safe spaces.
So why choose to be so public? Isn’t that the opposite of a safe space? In many ways, yes. Even though speaking freely about one’s recovery can be encouraged in certain circles, there is still a faction of the mental health field that is extremely uncomfortable with the practice. A painful lesson I’ve learned is that some people, including other professionals, can be downright hateful with their comments, or dismiss me as someone who can’t be trusted because I am either too unstable or I make it all about me. Some of these comments have been shared directly with me, in public forums or at conferences. Others have suggested that what I have to share from my lived experience isn’t as valuable as what the literature can back up with numbers and protocols. And others get downright silent and squeamish when I talk about surviving a clinically significant dissociative disorder and all that accompanies it (e.g., suicidal ideation, self-injury, addiction). A great deal that has been said behind my back has also been relayed to me—particularly that I have no boundaries for sharing so much of my story, or that it’s dangerous that I’ve let myself be the client in EMDR demonstration videos, letting colleagues work on me.
I expected all of these criticisms when I wrote my coming out article in 2018. I have three very easy answers for these critics that I’ve realized in the two years of ardent advocacy work that’s followed: (a) academic work in dissociation is important, and so is lived experience—we lose our soul as clinical professionals when we minimize that, (b) I don’t share anything publicly that I haven’t first addressed privately; may I suggest you look at what bothers you the most about my disclosures and ask if this is revealing something unhealed in you, (c) why haven’t you let someone do a public demonstration on you? While I respect everyone’s right to privately work on what they need to, if you are a clinical trainer or public figure, showing your vulnerability, i.e., your wounds will always help to diffuse the horrific us vs. them divide that promotes mental health stigma in society. Add these all to the pile of lessons.
I am public for all of the people, especially other professionals, thanking me for being so open in my position of privilege about things that our field has kept shrouded in mystery and shame. Especially dissociation. This is a particularly powerful lesson I’ve learned about vulnerability—when you put yourself out there and take a further beating for it—people who are prepared to hear it will be challenged into healing action. I’ve bore witness to many professional “comings out” as someone with a dissociative disorder, often for the first time. There is so much fear that they will be misunderstood (at best) or terminated (at worst) in their settings or larger clinical communities if they speak freely. Many people with dissociative disorders keep their condition hidden from their partners and their families, scared of the ramifications. For many of us it’s just easier to label what we have as something else—like PTSD or a bipolar disorder.
Yet in reality, dissociative minds have a masterful capacity to solve complex puzzles—we are often the most brilliant thinkers and leaders in any of our chosen professions. We are the ones who, if unafraid, jump in there and get things done, watching the professional committees in our fields wax on philosophically and theoretically about what should be done. Our dissociative minds are made of heart and soul, and when that can be appreciated and worked with instead of denigrated, the world can and will be changed for the better. When I know that my public sharing can validate even one other person with a dissociative disorder or other condition that is accompanied by a great deal of dissociation, being vulnerable in the way I’ve chosen to be feels more than worth it. I live for the day when public vulnerability is accepted as the norm and not seen as something out of the ordinary; I work to make that future a reality. And while recognizing this mission as my life's work is one of the most important lessons of my coming out, it's not the most important.
Dissociation was the hardest "coming out" because of the stigma that surrounds it. My ex-husband threatened to use it against me. When he tried and failed, I was no longer afraid to speak up about the way my mind works. Going through that divorce and surviving these attempts to discredit me was severely wounding. Vulnerable feels like an insufficient word to describe the experience. While sharing the fruits of my healing so publicly seems to have helped others, being vulnerable in this way has been imperative to my own continued healing. Every time I share something publicly, I feel like I am baring my naked soul in a similar way that one might bare their naked body in public. Yet today I can look at that nakedness and appreciate the woman who is bearing it. And I hope that for as many years as I have left in this body, I will continue to “come out” and honor vulnerability in a way that challenges others while also strengthening my capacity to heal through the radical practice of being honest.
So here I am today…eighteen years sober, “adult years,” if you will. I am still sifting through the layers and healing them as they are revealed and peeled back. I remain a hopeless train wreck in the romantic relationship department. Every time I try to date, I’m reminded of what my late friend Denise S. used to tell me—our relational parts of our lives can be the last to heal because they were the first to get wounded. I stay in my own counseling to address these injuries, knowing that I’m headed in the direction of greater health. I am navigating the waters of our current social climate, and I take my role as an anti-racist professional committed to doing my part to end the sting of systemic racism. I also know that the greatest service I can provide is to continue to do my own trauma work and help others to do the same. That’s how I changed for the better as a human and as a citizen, yet I cannot rest on this progress. I’m currently taking a good, hard look at how I’ve benefited from the American system existing as it is. And I know that getting uncomfortable and yes, vulnerable, is required on my part to make a real difference. This may involve me losing more family members, more friends, and more colleagues. Being vulnerable has taught me and continues to teach me that when I put myself out there honestly, things will always work out as they are intended. And I will feel inevitably feel healthier and more restored to sanity in the process.
Photography and Body Art by Michael John Gargano
Hi, my name is Destiny. I live with a birth defect called Spina Bifida. It is what I have NOT who I am. That being said, it affects my daily life in many ways including how I show up in the world and how I interact with it. My life is not a script from a made for TV movie. I am often viewed similarly to those "As Seen On TV" infomercials. I know you have seen them. You've probably even brought into some of them yourself. They are often products that fail to meet your expectations from what they were claiming to be in the ads or you get them home and they work amazingly well only to malfunction right after the 30-90 day money-back guarantee runs out!
That is NOT me either but you may have been fooled into thinking either example above is the reality of my life. The current state the world is in with protests and riots over racism has sparked a few heated debates. There has also been huge worldwide news coverage of the entire situation. With media comes creative license and with that comes a whole host of other issues that I will dive into a few of here later.
Recently an article came across my screen and again in my inbox. The article is titled 8 Influential Black Women with Disabilities to Follow. It was published within the time frame of everything going on.
HOLD THE PHONE...RED FLAG!
Black = Minority
Women = Unequal (if not considered a Minority)
Disabilities = Minority
Influential = We are supposed to inspire you to change because "if we can do it with the challenges life throws at us, WHY THE HECK CAN'T YOU?" That's called inspiration porn and can come in many forms, including memes. The disabled person in those cases is never asked so they are not consenting to the creation of the material.
I do not wish to demean anything that the eight women mentioned in the post do to make a living. What the women have accomplished is wonderful but not because of a disability. I do desire to bring light to some of the finer, missed, or overlooked points. All disabled people have many unique gifts and talents. As a disabled person I know we are often seen as a lesser value because we do things differently. What I have a huge problem with is using innocent disabled women as a weapon. It was painfully obvious to me that this was the case. The article might as well have been titled "Proof the US Government Isn't Racist and Doesn't Discriminate." I am a disabled, white woman from Canada and I'm not okay with that!
Disability is defined in two ways. A physical or mental condition that limits a person's movement, senses, or activities. The second is a disadvantage or handicap especially one imposed or recognized by law. How it is defined is problematic. It fails to realize that disability means different things to different people. It also fails to give a clear picture of what a disability looks like. It can't give one because it’s an umbrella term that is viewed as having one meaning. This results in a disabled person having to advocate for themselves proving themselves again and again in a world where nobody believes them. They are left to pave their path in the world largely being fought against and misunderstood.
In the article of all the disabilities mentioned, we have a Harvard law graduate, nurse, clothing designer, and others. Great! anyone with or without a disability can do any of those things. The law graduate doesn't appear to be working within the legal justice system and likely never will. The nurse says she has to fight to do the work of a nurse and not do anything except sit behind a desk because she obviously can do that so she should. She appears to have become slowly disabled over time and was possibly a nurse before becoming disabled. The clothing designer is an amputee, missing a leg. That has nothing to do with her ability to sit behind a sewing machine, at a computer or desk to draw wonderful designs for clothing. When wearing her creations and taking pictures they are cut off so the prosthetic doesn't show! Many of the others are in the entertainment industry and every last one of them is into disability rights, activism, or advocacy of some sort except the nurse. I think you are starting to get the picture here and seeing a pattern. Disability and Sex have something in common...THEY SELL!
The entertainment industry is the area that has the big bucks. The harsh reality is the big bucks don't go far when you are someone living with a disability and have more to cover due to the disability compared to other people. There are models, dancers, and actors that do have disabilities. The big questions...are they working for the same companies as anyone else? Or are they all working with companies that are specifically for those with disabilities even their type of disability? The reality very well may be that they are a model, or they are a dancer or an actor but maybe only had one shot at being either of those things.
When you hear about disabled models and actors on TV what you are most familiar with seeing are able-bodied people posing as or acting the part of a disabled person. (i.e. a wheelchair user) Rarely in any movie do you see someone with a disability playing the part of their disability. The same is true for images for ads to sell products. To a disabled person using an able-bodied person to act like them is very offensive and comes off as very fake. We know what we live with daily isn't anywhere near as good or as bad as what is shown. I know some of the disabled people mentioned in the article, not personally, but from social media. That's what many of them do mostly not model or act.
I mentioned briefly about companies for disabled people. I don't want to mark them as good or bad but I will say this: their existence is discrimination with a friendly face with the focus being on the disability, not the person. It makes able-bodied people look good and seem like great people when they create things like this for a part of society seen as weaker, unimportant, and less than anyone else. Don't subscribe to the images you have seen in the media as what disability is. It's truly not reality or an in-depth view of disability.
There is also a huge problem with mainstream companies using those with disabilities for photo opportunities or campaigning as a way to make themselves or a brand look good. The disabled person is used only because they are disabled and fit an image a company wants to portray. It’s called tokenism. By subscribing and buying into that sort of media you are allowing the people that paint disability in that way the right to do so. It's not only a problem on mainstream media but social media in the form of inspiration porn.
By necessity people with disabilities have to become adaptive and learn ways to navigate the world. This is not because we want to but we have to if we are to survive in a world that wasn't made for us to fit. Our biggest fight is often to have accommodations and modifications met. We are seen as needy, selfish, or as creating DRAMA. You may not always understand some of our needs, that doesn't mean we don't need accommodation or modifications. You don't have the right or ability to determine that.
We are often not heard, seen, or respected as individual human beings capable of things. We are expected to be poster children and spokespeople for our disability. That's the path the world laid out for us. The one that money can be made for their benefit.
Two extremes exist but there is a larger group in the middle who don't desire fame and dread being seen as an object to be pitied than there are people who are in the public eye being viewed as amazing overcomers of their disabilities instead of being accepted as people with them. Just because we are capable of working doesn't mean we are magically not disabled anymore.
If someone has the chance to and wants to pursue a career in entertainment they should be able to no matter if they are disabled or not. Nobody should be placed in a position where they have to sell their disability to earn a living or worthy of the space they take up. It's time we stop all the toxic positivity and inspiration porn that disabled people face. It’s time to embrace the struggle and raw, real human beings we truly are!
My reality as a disabled person is a person who struggles to fit into the two extremes while truly not wanting to be part of either one of them. What my experience is I can best sum up in a quote from Dr. Jamie Marich: "As a society, we tend to celebrate those that perform well hurt and we criticize or even demonize those that ask for help or otherwise show weakness.” For those of us in the middle, we are celebrated for being disabled while criticized and demonized for the same thing.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
This last year and a half has been an unending nightmare. I was “outed” as a person with a borderline personality disorder (BPD) by an angry classmate who I had trusted with this information. In the clinical psychology world this can destroy your career. What happens then to a clinical psychologist in training who outs you as a person who has been given a highly stigmatized mental health diagnosis? Nothing.
After what I thought was a minor disagreement, a colleague who has dealt with mental illness themselves and currently works with therapy clients, shared my mental health history and other personal information with other colleagues. Initially, I attempted to have an open discussion with this colleague. After several attempts at confronting this person, they became increasingly abusive. This colleague has since pushed me in the students' lounge, consistently rolled their eyes when I speak in class, shut me out of conversations and given me the silent treatment. Furthermore, they have isolated me and ruined my professional relationship with others in the program. In short, I am being bullied.
BPD is a highly stigmatized diagnosis. Although I do not identify with it and do not consent to this diagnostic assignment, it was given to me as a teenager. I experienced multiple levels of ongoing abuse, neglect and self-harm. These experiences spilled over onto my psychiatric treatment. Due to the many mistreatments and constant dismissal of my experience within the psychiatric community, I now consider myself a recovered psychiatric survivor.
As clinical psychologists we are trained to practice five principal ethical principles: benevolence and nonmaleficence; fidelity and responsibility; integrity; justice; and respect for people’s rights and dignity. Yet, two years into a doctoral clinical psychology program I have heard many horrifying things about people with BPD. The most common label is that “borderlines” are manipulative, needy, irrational, difficult, clingy liars; and incapable of completing graduate school or even undergraduate. Another misconception is that people with self-harm scars must have BPD. Diagnoses are reductionist labels. Although for many people they provide an answer to their troubles, for many others they add to their troubles.
Going back to where I started, I was “outed” without consent. After six months I finally got fed up and told my advisor what was happening. They advised taking meaningful action against this person. A school appointed psychologist told me to “suck it up.” I had done that for many months, wanting to respect this person's need to be angry and tolerating their continued abuse. Only one other colleague knew, but they remained close with the other colleague. I met with the program director, but there was not much they could do due to lack of evidence, and I did not want to disclose further details about my history, partly for fear of additional stigmatization.
I have enough going against me as it is for the clinical psychology field. I am a Latinx woman with little U.S. connection and Spanish as a first language. In addition, I have scars, the result of violence, abuse, self-harm and more. My scars can be seen and judged by anybody who pays close attention, which psychologists are trained to do. For the last year and a half, I have felt powerless. Some colleagues have caught up with the hostility but besides offering moral support have not done anything proactive to help stop the bullying colleague or be an ally.
Some colleagues have expressed that they do not want to fall at odds or be shunned by others, basically end up in the position I am in. What worries me is that not only myself, but our patients, are being put in these positions as well, dehumanized by the very professionals charged with helping them. The clinical psychology field seems to have an us (the healthy ones) versus them (the mentally ill) perspective. The field feeds and exists on the ideal that clinical psychology helps others heal, but in reality, they look suspiciously at those who have been able to heal, survived the system and have a desire to do the same for others. The field exists within the same authoritarian hierarchy as many other systems that perpetrate injustices. At one point a PhD student who disclosed their given diagnosis was told that by sharing that information they had created a “burden” for their colleagues. They mentioned how their mentor and “lab mates” had joked about their given diagnosis and how they felt the need to disclose their given diagnosis in order to make them stop. In addition, a historic lack of all expressions of diversity race, gender, cultures, economics, languages, sexual orientation and psychological experiences permeates the field to the detriment of the patients.
The ethical principles that rule clinical psychology are practiced as long as providers are the sane/normal ones and the patients are crazy and incapable. This has been further demonstrated by research on mental health provider stigma which may also take the form of prejudice and discrimination. For the last year and a half, I have felt isolated, betrayed, powerless and for the most part, defeated. I considered dropping out on multiple occasions. A quick Google search showed that there are not many clinical psychologists with lived experiences who are “out.” This made me wonder, how many of us are living in the shadows, quietly listening to others in our field making deprecating comments about people like us and being marginalized and bullied. Additionally, I wonder how “out” I actually am, how many people know and how will the labeling ultimately affect my career. These thoughts keep me up at night and I have debated many times whether or not to “officially” be out, and at least regain my narrative and speak out. Within our field it seems that labels or given diagnoses place a person within a box, context, or circumstance and the person's personal experience are most often discredited and dismissed.
One thing they could say if I “come out” is “Here she goes, the manipulative needy woman, needing attention,” as psychologists have previously said about individuals with a given diagnosis of BPD. These are the same beliefs that maintain the status quo, that create systematic barriers for individuals with lived experiences to speak out, get help and recover. These are the same mechanisms which perpetuate abuse within our mental health system. The field needs to change, clinical psychologists need to be held accountable for their role in keeping the status quo, and maintaining inequalities. In my opinion, clinical psychologists need to be challenged from the minute training starts, any training.
Individuals with lived experience in mental illness should be at the forefront of this change and leading these conversations, we are the ones who have been through the system. Even if our perspectives of how the mental health system should be revolutionized digress, they matter. Instead the field of clinical psychology, which often promotes healing and recovery, ironically keeps us marginalized as being “unable to recover.” Moreover, from what I know, many schools do not ask that clinical psychologists attend therapy themselves and for that reason many have never been in the patient’s role. Is this not hypocritical and counterintuitive? I am calling my field out for its hypocrisy and continued dismissal of marginalized voices. The field already exists within a Westernized white developed bubble and it is time to put a stop to all of this. Simultaneously, I am calling out my colleagues and future clinical psychologists for their continued participation in these practices. As it is, the clinical psychology field continues to promote and monetize the dehumanization of mentally ill people.
When will the dehumanization of people with lived experiences in mental illness stop?
Do not deny what comes up with your reaction. Reactions aren’t all bad--as some distorted spiritual teachings claim them to be. There are times when they show us where we can no longer accept certain behavior or treatment from another.
Nowadays, many of us are turning towards spirituality and ancient wisdom teachings to enhance our lives and look deeper within. We may have realized that conventional ways are not working so well anymore. Please be aware that it is actually important to learn to engage safely in spiritual practice...who knew?! This way of living should be approached in a balanced way where we can discern what is right for us and what does not serve us.
For the most part, the teachings and teachers are not questioned. Instead they are revered and followed very devoutly. Although it may be seen as “unspiritual” to some, these teachings have to be reviewed or questioned just like anything else. Don’t get me wrong...there are many gifts wrapped in these ancient teachings. There are also many ways that, if practiced to an extreme, these teachings can put you into danger; especially if you are in a vulnerable state or have endured trauma in your life.
What is lacking in many spiritual communities is a healthy balance between respecting our humanness and connecting with our spirit. We need not abandon one for the other. Some people who seek out spirituality are lacking in psychological and emotional awareness, causing them to use the teachings to bypass their humanness in the name of “ego transcendence.” I hate to tell you...but we are stuck with our egos...they are not going anywhere anytime soon!
The ego-mind likes to think and act on our behalf, therefore; it has its own agenda and wants to protect us from our past experiences even though they are not happening in the present. This is understandable and we have to remember that our egos try their best (although limited in their approaches) when they perceive danger in our current environment. Your ego is not “bad” and should not be gotten rid of. Our egos, in fact, allow us to think critically, solve problems, understand interactions, make decisions, discern right from wrong, analyze data and sort through information. If you deny your ego entirely, the workings of your mind can become partially disabled and you may be unable to perform these tasks in any balanced way because you won’t trust your own thoughts and actions. This can be very dangerous!
Even some spiritual teachers, who boast of this transcendence, have the biggest and most destructive egos of all, and ironically, this is all playing out unconsciously...without them even noticing. Or sometimes they are very well aware and simply on a power high. If a teacher is denying the existence of their ego (or thoughts/behaviors/patterns) in an effort to keep their spiritual image, they are also denying their “dark-side”. These parts that are being rejected subconsciously come up and control their life through unconscious behaviors and repeating patterns; even harming others around them who trust them and are wanting to be of service and give of their hearts. Certain spiritual teachers, caught up in their own egos and unconsciously denying their “darkness”, steer us away from expressing a reaction in any way and so we may not recognize the important messages for us that often come along with them.
Let’s talk about “reactions” and the shame that often comes up when daring to allow yourself to actually have them. Overly spiritual people might say that the reaction is just “resistance” to “what is” and that you should “accept things the way they are”. In the case that you are unable to accept “what is”, for any variety of reasons (or are unable to take the spiritual route and you do have a reaction) you may feel shame because you have not practiced the teachings in the best way possible. Or maybe you think that you are not worthy of this spiritual practice because you aren’t doing it right and are getting away from your intention.
Sometimes, it is just not complete to say that you are just in resistance or that you should accept things as they are. There is more for us to see here. In cases of abuse or manipulation, why should we just accept what is? Maybe we should not. Maybe we should speak out for what is right or say those facts that someone who is abusive wouldn’t want to get out. Actually, I think that is exactly what we should do. Because whatever abuse or dysfunction is going on is enabled by us being quiet or just accepting it. The cycle will continue if we spiritualize our reaction to these types of dynamics. This is a case where you can use your ego-mind to discern what is right for you to do...but not if someone has convinced you to believe the ego is all bad and should be thrown to the wolves!
Let’s say you are overwhelmed by your life circumstances and you feel like you are reaching a breaking point. You may have a reaction. In this case, feeling the emotions strongly enough to get into the reaction may actually be healthy for you in order to make a change.
We are taught that reactions come up from unresolved circumstances, in the form of triggers, from our past. When something irritates or angers us, we should:
I agree with this teaching in principle and it has been beneficial to me--increasing my capacity in many areas. However, if you are in an abusive situation, or are constantly pushed too far over your edge of comfort, this teaching can be practiced in a distorted way.
In a spiritual community, we learn that once we have dropped the energy behind the reaction (calmed down) and have the ability to respond...then we can approach the person who triggered us. That is a good plan...except that, at this point, we may have prematurely forgotten about the impact of the abusive person or forgiven them for their actions, even if it was not a forgivable thing that they did. Yes, I said it...some things are unforgivable!
If we spiritualize everything and live in some ethereal realm floating above ourselves, completely detached from our humanness, then we may allow people to treat us in many ways that are not healthy, not conducive to our growth, or even keep us in cycles of trauma. We could be spiritually bypassing our reaction and denying our own feelings about it in an effort to “let go of”, “relax with”, or even “surrender to” it. What we are actually doing, in many cases, is suppressing the reaction. Beware, what you may be “surrendering” to is abuse!
Let’s talk about the messages that accompany reactions.
Maybe you are in a circumstance where you are under a lot of pressure at work and your partner isn’t very supportive (seems to be a common example these days). So, something sets you off and you “flip out” and start screaming at them about how you can’t do this anymore and then realize that you have to make a big change--that is probably accurate. And yet, if you are trying to follow extreme spiritual teachings on reactions then you may think you should just drop it or let it go and wait until you drop the energetic charge and can respond. Here, you stay with the partner; you stay at the job.
This is an alternative: when you lose your temper, allow your reaction to reveal to you that you have to make a big change. Look at it. Investigate: what is it trying to tell you? Question it...let it be there. Be with it. Don’t be afraid...this takes courage.
You know, if you “breathe” enough with it (especially many different times with the same trigger) and it passes, you may just conclude that you are in a reaction based on your “past programming” and you were wrong to think those things. Or maybe you can respond instead when you drop the energetic charge. By that time, you have probably talked yourself out of what you know you need to do...once again. This breathing and acceptance may happen again and again with you believing it is your own internal work to do; giving the other person a pass.
Of course, others shouldn’t be continuously subjected to your reactions. There are ways to express them--or you can learn to listen to yourself before they become so forceful. You should note: if they come up often, you need to take action or you may stay complacent under terrible conditions.
So, what if this big blast of energy in the form of a reaction is informing you that you are to make a change? Oftentimes, it is. Don’t throw out the information it gave you just because it came up the way it did. Don’t walk out of alignment with yourself, your body, and what you know you must do. Yes, by all means you can wait to calm down before you respond, but don’t miss the point! Use your reaction to empower yourself to see the truth of the matter. Reach a place where you are not overtaken by emotions, can act calmly, and discern what is appropriate for you.
Allow taking care of yourself and feeling safe to be your biggest priority. Realize that the reaction arrived for a reason. You may constantly be putting yourself over your edge where you will face anxiety, depression, rage, and shutdown.
In my experience, this is the core of many episodes of anxiety: knowing you should do something and not following your knowledge and intuition to change something in your life. Instead, you may find yourself discarding this information, not listening to yourself, feeling too much fear to do something different, maybe denying what you feel in your body. And so you avoid making a decision, maybe unknowingly justify another’s actions. Sit in what does not serve you. You are crawling in your skin. And you feel awful.
Maybe you KNOW you should get away from your partner who you constantly argue with or leave the abusive job that requires way too much of your energy... and that’s what causes you to be very reactive. Instead of believing you are the problem, realize that you need to create a solution-- and follow through with it. Even if it feels unnatural and impossible because it is not your usual pattern--get some support and go with it!
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. As in, don’t ignore the action that came to you--just because it came in the form of a re-ACTION.
You need not over-spiritualize your humanness. The gift of this life is to experience the richness of your human side, both dark and light, as you connect to your spirit--grounded on this earth.
Oppression and Privilege: An Excerpt from Trauma and the 12 Steps Revised and Expanded Edition (Dr. Jamie Marich)
In 2016 I had the privilege to give an EMDR therapy overview at a conference for treatment providers of color. We didn’t even get to the content on EMDR. I was not surprised, yet was still amazed at how healing the validation of an experience like racism as traumatic was to my students in attendance. I listened to the attendees’ experience, strength, and hope on the traumatic impact of being a person of color in communities and systems that will likely invalidate their experience. The conference taught me that validating the suffering people experience, especially in contexts when it is likely to be ignored or dismissed, is a vital first step in healing trauma. And healing trauma can be a life or death matter to people seeking recovery from addiction.
Consider the concept of negative cognitions that accompany any traumatic experience. In EMDR therapy and various other modalities, we describe negative cognitions as the messages people receive about themselves (e.g., “I am a failure,” “I am permanently damaged,” “No one will ever love me”) or the world (“No one can be trusted,” “I am in danger”) resulting from a traumatic experience. In the fifth edition updated in 2013, even the DSM added the presence of such cognitions as part of the negative alterations in cognitions and mood criterion under the PTSD diagnosis.
My colleague Rajani Venkatraman Levis and her writing partner Laura Siniego introduced the idea of oppressive cognitions in a 2016 book chapter on cultural diversity in EMDR therapy. This construct takes the idea of negative cognitions a step further by recognizing that some of these messages we internalize are rooted in what we learned from others about our race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity. Examples of oppressive cognitions can be very specific (e.g., “Dark-skinned women are not beautiful,” “I am a freak for being this way,” “Real men don’t cry,” “I am trash because of where I come from,” “I am an abomination because Jesus says so”) or more generalized (“The world is not a safe place for people like me”). In the words of Melita Travis Johnson, an African-American woman, longtime social worker, and one of my personal mentors, “Oppression complicates--and aggravates—the recovery process.”
These visceral imprints are very real and can be even more impacting when they fester day in and day out. Although many people who have experienced oppression can pinpoint one or two major events in their lives that might qualify for a PTSD diagnosis, it’s the cumulative impact that can be more damaging. A student of color once described her experience of racism to me as “the trauma of a thousand paper cuts.”
At this point, you may dismiss what I’ve presented thus far as irrelevant because these experiences were not so for you. Or you may fear that drawing attention to the dynamics of oppression plays into the idea of terminal uniqueness, or the inclination many folks in recovery have to prove that they had it worse than others. Remember that a core component of trauma-informed care is honoring that just because something was a certain way for you, doesn’t mean it was that way for everyone else. I am not a politician, pundit, sociologist, or diversity specialist, and it’s well beyond the scope of this book for me to get into any debates on the matter. Consider, if you’re familiar with the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, how we are even encouraged to resign from the debating society in order to get well. So I am no longer a debater.
And yet I am a trauma specialist and can testify to the reality of oppression and the various ways it manifests itself as a legitimate form of wounding that needs to be addressed. My hope is that people in recovery who have not been personally affected by oppressive cognitions in any way can honor the struggle of people who have. Even if you have been impacted by oppressive cognitions based on how you grew up, please don’t transpose this wounding onto others by getting into shouting matches about who had it worse. I’ve seen this happen too often in the rooms of recovery, and that is not how we help each other heal.
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by two well-educated white men of privilege. If you are a white person reading this you may already be getting nervous at the very mention of the word privilege. Privilege doesn’t mean that you don’t have problems or your life hasn’t been hard. A simple way to look at it is that you have not experienced the extra stress of having to navigate life with the added weight of oppression due to race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexual orientation. Recognizing your privilege means honoring that you may not have to worry about what others face as a daily struggle. This recognition and the personal work that goes along with it are important if you are going to work with others in recovery who are different from you.
Failure to honor the struggle of an individual seeking help pushes more people away from seeking or retaining help than any other factor I’ve observed in my career. Recognize and acknowledge how others experience life—this is the very definition of empathy. If your biases and misconceptions about how people other than you experience the world is getting in the way of your being empathetic, there is likely more work to be done on yourself if you wish to be of optimal service to others. In the brilliant words of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, herself a person in long-term recovery, “Our drug of choice is knowing who we’re better than.”[ii] This hit me like a ton of bricks when I heard her say it out loud. It felt like the answer to why we can get ourselves into a frantic mess as a society, and why we can alienate people in recovery contexts.
If you feel uncomfortable about anything you have read thus far, or anything you read in the sections that follow, remember that discomfort is required for meaningful change. Hopefully you first picked up this book because you want to do better. The sections that follow will go into more of the specifics on how you can. The quest to do better must always include constant inventory and evaluation of ourselves, our biases, and where our own wounds may need healing.
[i] Jamie Marich, Trauma Made Simple: Competencies in Assessment, Treatment and Working with Survivors (Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing & Media, 2014), 61.
[ii] Panel discussion at Wild Goose Festival, Hot Springs, NC, July 12, 2019.
From Trauma and the 12 Steps Revised and Expanded Edition: An Inclusive Guide for Recovery, by Dr. Jamie Marich, Published by North Atlantic Books, copyright 2020. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
Defects of Character or Emotional Parts: Using Structural Dissociation to Reframe Step Six by Michael Gargano, LMHC, CASAC-2
“We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
--Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 6
Treatment centers and 12-step communities need to begin normalizing dissociation within the addicted person’s experience. Trauma and dissociation are often left out of the discussion in addiction treatment and recovery worlds. Survivors of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and other traumatic experiences note with consistency and frequency the value of compartmentalization plays in daily life functioning and avoidance of traumatic memories. As an addiction and trauma specialist, I’ve heard countless clients describe how and why it became necessary to stuff events, emotions, sensations, thoughts, actions, and images deep into the catacombs of the psyche. The self that seeks recovery may sometimes feel like a fraud, fake, or not real, as a result. And this can make the phrase defects of character in Step 6 difficult for addicted survivors of trauma to navigate. Looking at Step 6 through the lens of structural dissociation, may offer the field, recovery communities, and people we serve new insight into both trauma-informing and dissociation-informing the steps. What we commonly call defects of character within 12-Step Literature can be more accurately viewed as dissociative parts of self that impede spiritual progress, acceptance, connectedness, healthy relationships, and recovery
A cursory overview of the Theory of Structural Dissociation is needed to help us understand its theoretical and clinical framework. The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization, a ground-breaking book on trauma and dissociation, written by Onno van der Hart, Ellert R.S. Nijenhus, & Kathy Steele, proposes human beings are not born with an integrated personality. Our early formative life experiences shape our personality, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In healthy development our caretakers help us to meaningfully integrate and adapt to our environment. Attachment wounds stemming caretakers who could not meet our essential needs, sooth us, and provide us with restorative experiences sets the stage for fragmentation of the self. The discussion presented in this blog will prepare us to draw connections to how structural dissociation relates to 12 Step work and a trauma-informed approach to embracing our dissociative parts. We challenge the notion of character defects as it is traditionally understood in recovery circles as the term defects of character does not align with a trauma-informed approach. This contention is made with full recognition that the steps can and do work for millions, including me. And it’s also time to have this discussion.
The conception of dissociative parts of the personality is not new. The theory of structural dissociation of the personality is a cogent, comprehensive, and concise description of dissociative parts. The theory holds every person has what is commonly referred to as an Apparently Normal Self/Part (ANP). The ANP is the survivor self or the core persona that is seen by others in public, holds a job, raises a family, forms attachments, and does everything that we often ascribe to the executive functioning in our brains. In response to a traumatic event the ANP fragments with the formation of an Emotional Part (EP). The EPs form to protect the ANP from the wounding that has occurred.
The self as EP displays evolutionary defense mechanisms, emotional reactions, and action systems to protect the core self. Action systems guide us to notice and be drawn to stimuli. They restrict our field of consciousness to relevant stimuli and promote certain action tendencies while inhibiting others. For example, when a fire alarm suddenly goes off, the self as EP may signal “Danger, Danger, Danger!” and the action system related to panic may activate. The action system related to rational thought and decision making may be disinhibited. These mechanisms include responses based on flight, fight, freeze, and submission. If a dissociated part is fixated in a particular action system or subsystem, they may be unable to cope or perceive with their situations because their perceptions are colored by the goals, and a restricted field of consciousness will be restricted to stimuli relevant to that subsystem.
I believe Dr. Bob and Bill W.’s vision of step work helps us to heal our structural dissociation. Step Six invites recovery seekers to dig deeply and invite our EPs into their healing journey. Up to this point in our recovery experience we have accepted the nature of our addiction, we took steps to find a new path, embraced a belief that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, made a searching and fearless inventory, faced our dissociation, and now we are tasked with integration. Bill W.’s commentary on Step Six hones in on the addicted person’s compulsive tendency for self-destruction and annihilation. We work against our instinct for self-preservation. The commentary goes on to describe structural dissociation like language in discussion of how our drives far exceed their usefulness. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous understood parts of self. Bill W. writes in 12 Steps and 12 Traditions commentary on Step Six: “When our instincts drive us blindly or willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfaction or pleasure than are possible or due us.” He is talking about an EP. Bill recognized EPs operating within recovery seekers more than 80 years ago.
The goal of Step Six is not to eradicate our EPs. Total integration of all dissociative parts of self will not happen overnight. Some parts of self will mature or extinguish. Others will take a lifetime to heal. Parts work, trauma work, and working the steps are circular pursuits. We may need to go through the Steps several times to gain a new way of relating in the world. The wisdom of this Step is we are cautioned to “be content with patient improvement.” It is important to seek proper therapy with someone skilled in dissociation and parts work who can help you understand the emotional parts of your personality. In our parts work some of our parts may not want to work on the spiritual aspects of the program. Some might attempt to destroy the whole system. We did not will these EPs to exist. Our minds fractured in a beautiful way to keep us safe, secure, and protected. However, the actions, thoughts, and impulses of our EPs caused us insurmountable problems as we sought to change old patterns.
Change is difficult. Sometimes we get into a routine and become complacent with our EPs. Take procrastination, for example. By not completing a task on time, one does not have to risk failure. This EP could be protecting us also from people hurting us by seeing our vulnerability. Turning in assignments late or showing up on time for appointments means our EPs remain in control of who gets to see our vulnerable side. Procrastination, like other destructive tendencies, could be an EP part designed to hide reality from us.
Our EPs have secondary gains which make it difficult to heal them. Skillful work in this area will explore the systems and rules at play. We will not be perfect in this work nor do we need to be. In Step Six we work to renegotiate the boundaries with our EPs and the alliances between them. Our work here is to meet our needs in more adaptive ways so our lives as ANP is fuller, richer, and more meaningful.
In my recovery experience I relied heavily on EMDR therapy, sponsorship, and the 12-step recovery meetings and literature to heal my fragmented self. I believed I could be restored to sanity. I trusted my Higher Power would allow me to get where I needed to go in the often hard and emotional trauma work, I set for to complete. I had a mindfulness and yoga practice that helped me settle inward to listen to my emotional parts. I had faith in my therapist who guided me through parts work and trauma reprocessing. I was able to see for the first time how my EPs impinged on my ability to live unchained. My EPs were my minds grasps of relating to a world which no longer existed. We must face facets of our personality which do not paint us in a good light. The Shadow side of the personality we must not fear. Step 6 and parts work are reparative processes. What I have learned is I do not have to live in survival mode any longer. Because of this work I can meet needs without reliance on old compulsive behaviors. I can risk authenticity and vulnerability without fear of rejection.
Sexual addiction and recovery can be controversial constructs. Unlike addictions to chemicals or substances, sex and sexuality are intrinsic facets of healthy human life and development. The goal of recovery from sexual addiction for most people is not to give up sex or the expression of one’s sexuality in its entirety. Rather, the purpose of recovery is to live a fulfilled life embracing a healthier model of sexual expression. Recovery is about setting boundaries and freeing one’s self of the suffering caused by acting out.
Like eating disorders, shopping addiction, and gambling, sex addiction is a process addiction. Process addictions are generally described as behaviors that are habitual and provide the person with an emotional high. The problematic behavior is often repeated to gain an increased high. A negative feedback loop forms wherein the individual cannot stop the behavior despite negative consequences. The origins of these addictions are rooted in trauma. Most people do not wake up one day and say, “Hey I think I’d like to become a sex addict.” Wounds leave their mark. The pain endured over time often becomes unbearable and prompts a form of escapism we see as addiction.
Shame often keeps people from seeking the help so desperately needed to develop healthier lifestyles in their journey for sexual recovery. Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) Green Book reminds recovery seekers:
Sexual addiction is not just a bad habit. Nor is it the result of poor self-control, a lack of morals, or a series of mistakes. If it were something we could stop on our own, the negative consequences would be enough to make us stop. Many of us tried to cure ourselves with religious or spiritual practice, moral discipline, or self-improvement. Despite our sincerity and our best efforts, we continued to act out. Our behavior eluded all rational attempts at explanation or correction. We had to face the fact that we had a disease, and that we could not stop the addictive behavior by ourselves (p. 9).
My name is Michael and I am a recovering sex addict, anorexic, and alcoholic. What follows comes from my lived experience as a person in recovery and as a clinician trained in trauma, addiction, and mental health. I work the twelve steps and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA). I will forever be indebted Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) and to 12-step recovery programs for the gift of living free from the bondage of addictions.
The spiritual principles, tools, and suggestions contained within 12-step recovery helped me to find a life that was worth living. I learned that I deserved to be recovered, loved, and that I have worth. Recovery and trauma work helped me to thrive and accept who I am, was, and can be. In an earlier piece I wrote about the Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and sex, and that our lives became unmanageable.” The process to admit that I was powerless and that my life had become unmanageable took what felt like a lifetime to achieve. I bought the SAA Green Book and read through the entire text cover to cover in search for the answer of how to remain in sexual recovery.
The first task of this sexual recovery journey started 90 days of abstinence from all sexual behaviors. Let me tell you that it the most difficult thing I ever had to do in my life. I experienced withdrawal symptoms which included body shakes, anxiety, depression, angst, despair, craving, hypersensitivity, suicidal thoughts, and intense dreams. That list does not do justice to my lived experience during that time. It was a miserable experience, and yet a necessary one for recovery in my eyes.
When I joined SAA, I continued to hear a concept called “3 Circles.” It was all everyone talked about in meetings and in literature. In the Fellowship these three circles are how each member defines what is addictive and healthy sexual behavior for themselves. The program is quick to recognize the personal nature of addiction to sex. Not every human being acts out in the same way. For some their addiction is pornography. And for others it may be masturbation, destructive relationships, power and control, romantic obsession, cruising the streets for sexual partners, cybersex, prostitution, cross-dressing, having affairs, and fantasy. The list is endless.
Understanding what is addictive and is healthy requires distance and reflection. That 90-day embargo on sex and thinking or acting on sexual thoughts/desires were critical. The help of incredible trauma-informed sponsorship and therapy also played a major role in my recovery. I recall early in recovery listening to others share first step presentations about their powerlessness and unmanageability. I got into recovery in a Pre-COVID19 world with no local SAA meetings. My only options were telephone meetings all over the country.
Living with an addiction in isolation often drove me to act out. The beauty of phone and video meetings with others was that I could stay connected. I leaned early on in my process that recovery thrives in connectedness. I made several phone meetings part of my routine schedule. I volunteered on calls to read literature. During meetings I spoke up about my struggles and desires for a life built on a firm bedrock of recovery. It did not matter the time of day or hour of night. I made meetings a priority in my life. I stayed for fellowship hour at the end of each call. I exchanged numbers with other recovering sex addicts, and made phone calls during the week to talk about life, recovery, successes, and struggles.
I already received the gift of desperation. I needed something to give me hope in my life. As I called into these meetings, I heard men and women who shared their experience of what it was like, consequences of their acting out, and steps to stay in recovery. I sat and reflected on my own life after each presentation. I saw patterns of what behaviors I could not control. My first SAA sponsor, Adam, was a man who attended these phone meetings. We exchanged contact information and started to work the steps. I owe him a debt of gratitude for helping me to define what sexual recovery would look like for me. We have never met face to face. We conduct step work via email and phone calls. Sponsorship and meetings are my lifelines for connectedness. These are some of the tools in my recovery toolkit:
The Three Circles (diagrammed below) consist of three concentric circles. Each level represents a layer of addiction and recovery. Inner Circle behaviors are ones that cannot be safely practiced and/or controlled (seeking out emotionally unavailable people, pornography, drug use, alcohol use, disordered eating, etc.). Middle circle behaviors are actions, desires or behaviors that may lead to a slip or are risky (using sex to avoid emotions, lying, hiding, justification, etc.). Outer circle behaviors promote recovery (healthy sex based on choice, mutuality, and respect; meetings, sponsor, therapy, family time, staying connected, hobbies, step work, spiritual community time, dating, writing, dancing, creating music, etc.).
The process was a spiritual awakening. For the first time I could see my addiction; it had a name. It was real. It had a list of behaviors and symptoms. Defining healthy sexuality shifted my understanding. The best advice I received from my sponsor was live in the outer circle. What a jewel that insight was. The way I interacted with people and my surroundings changed. I noticed a shift in mind, body, and spirit. I felt alive again.
As a professional and a person in recovery it was important to define my boundaries especially around addiction. I carried intense shame for my addictions. I often felt that I lived a double life. My recovery work centered around integration of all the parts and pieces of myself. I never could be who I was. All the parts of me were cut off. Sexuality was one piece. Intellectual me was another. Emotional side was another. Creativity was lost in the abyss. I felt if I came out about my addictions or my parts of self, I would be shunned from the profession. My recovery integrated into every domain of my life. I turned a new leaf thanks to the program, recovery support systems, and others who have opened the door that I may walked through.
I am who I am. I will not change this inner-knowing for any person or institution. The process of recovery has instilled within me radical acceptance for who I am. I am not alone. Acceptance, I discovered, was key to healing. Once I made a thorough first step and opened the flood gates of the past, I quickly realized the need for trauma work. I could not stay in recovery from sex addiction without resolving the past that impeded on my present life. Spiritual awakening lead me to start EMDR.
I went to see Tom Buckles, LMHC, a former professor and licensed mental health clinician, who offered EMDR treatment. I quickly learned about my dissociative mind and how my parts of self directly influenced my acting out behaviors. Each of my eleven parts represented a wounded piece of my life. These parts were cut off facets of my life. I recall asking each of the parts to work together to help me heal. I believe because of this dissociative trauma work I was able to heal. At each session we completed between 4-5 trauma memories. I continued to see gains in EMDR. I started running, and I never thought I would be the running type. I restarted playing instruments, painting. My relationships with others took on a deeper meaning. I was free! I could remain present.
I have learned that my circles may change over time. In order to move something out of my inner or middle circle it requires an honest and willing conversation with my sponsor, recovery community and close friends whom I trust. My spirituality also plays a key role in helping to keep me on the road. Throughout this journey I have relied on faith to guide me. I turned over everything to the Higher Power of my understanding. I went back to the Roman Catholic Church, made confession, took spiritual direction, restarted mindfulness and yogic Practices, practiced spiritual principles in all my affairs. I remained open to what the universe, other people both inside and outside the fellowship, and my higher power were teaching me. I was an eager student.
The 3 Circles tool evolves with the person. Recovery is not stagnant. As I grew in healthiness and worked on the traumatic events that feed my addictions, sexuality took on a richer meaning for me. Today I am open to the potential in any situation. SAA and EMDR gave me the gift to live in the moment. Both 12-step programming and EMDR allowed me to face what seemed previously impossible. Today I can live a life that I never dreamed was possible. I realize today that sexuality is creativity and a vital life force. I channel that energy for good.
Today, I am a trained EMDR therapist. I get to help others in their quest to heal.
Recovery made this possible.
Painting by Michael Gargano
To read more about Michael and his work click HERE
“We’re all in this together."
It’s the messaging, tagline, hashtag, and well-intentioned sentiment that has been reiterated ad nauseum for the better part of 6 weeks. Apparently, the pandemic has brought us all to a place of Kum-by-ah, harmony laden nirvana, and we are all wrapped in snug and secure in our collective Shangrila. Except I’m calling bullshit.
We are, in fact, NOT all in this together. Sure, we’re all in it; it’s a global pandemic, how could we not be? As for the ‘together’ part? That’s where the phrase morphs from annoying trope to flat out lie. The word indicates that the collective ‘we’ is experiencing the current state of affairs in an equitable way, and this is the furthest thing from reality. When the response to the distress and trauma that is compounding day after day is “we’re all in this together”, there is an unspoken hierarchy being established; a domestic violence survivor held hostage in their home is shamed into silence, having been chastised with this insipid, hollow phrase. It strips away the validity of the individual experience that the trauma of COVID-19 has plunged our worlds into.
For trauma survivors, hearing “we’re all in this together” has become the latest iteration of “why did you stay” or “what were you wearing”. It is being used to minimize, marginalize, and delegitimize reactions and perspectives because it makes other people feel better to be able normalize the abnormal. This way, they do not have to sit in their own discomfort and try to hold space for those that have a different reality-not worse, different-than the one they are currently surviving.
At the very core of this entire reality is trauma. Trauma comes from medical Latin, and the root of the work is Greek for “a wound; a hurt; a defeat”. Here’s the other thing that goes along with trauma-crisis. Crisis comes from the Greek word ‘krisis’, meaning a decisive moment. Trauma has two parts, objective and subjective. We can agree that something has happened, and that our world has been picked up by this giant tantrum-throwing toddler of a virus, and shaken violently while we fly around helplessly, flipping upside down, solid ground yanked out from underneath us, like figures in a snow globe. How this seismic shift in reality is experienced can be, for some of us, a crisis on a daily basis. It is a crisis for parents who had no desire to home school their children; for the cancer patient who now finds themselves in chemotherapy alone; for the elderly who relied on home based services. When you are vulnerable, when you are homeless, when you are trying to serve and protect and maintain law and order, there is nobody else “in this” with you-you have earned the right for your experience to be uniquely yours and for the rest of us to acknowledge it.
We are grieving. As families, and communities; as a nation and as a world we are grieving. Grieving is the internal emotional experience of catastrophic, unexpected, heavy loss, an unexpected burden that is heavy for the soul to bare. Mourning is the external acknowledgment of your grief from the people around you. In a crisis, we go in to self-preservation mode, and while this is a completely expected, primitively driven survival response, we must stop, take a breath, shift out of survival mode, and see those around us. We cannot continue to dilute the relevance of engaging in empathy and holding space for individual lived experiences, despite our own discomfort with reality. Let’s start making the shift from “We’re all in this together” to “I see you in this”, and acknowledge the way we are each operating in our own experience of ‘this’, whatever that may be.
Originally published on Nikki Gordon's personal blog, 21 April 2020.
I grew up tortured by the tenets of fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity, and in my young adulthood, navigated to conservative communities within Catholicism. While some use my background against me, saying that I’m unnecessarily guarded, I believe that proactively healing from the wounds of spiritual abuse these last two decades gives me an uncanny ability to call out rigidity when I see it. Even as a kid being volleyed back and forth between two devout parents in their own right (one Evangelical, one Catholic), I learned to see the merits of both. AND I couldn’t understand why we all seemed to resist seeing the common ground. That included Jews, and Muslims, and Hindus, and Jains, and Buddhists, and all the great wisdom traditions of the planet! To me, our beliefs have a common thread, yet I grew up in contexts where I was told differently. The first time I ever saw the now legendary CoExist symbol was on a billboard when I first visited Sarajevo in 2000. I turned 21 that summer and Bosnia-Hercegovnia, where I would remain to live and teach for the next three years, was still in the throes of recovering from a brutal civil war. Personally, I was struggling to identify my own spiritual path as I sought recovery from addiction. When I saw that billboard, I knew with every fiber in my being that the CoExist symbol was my path. I came to learn it had a name--sanatan dharma—the threads that unite us are the essence of truth and worthy of embracing. The rest is just details.
Resting into this spiritual path serves me well in my personal life, and it’s largely shaped my professional outlook. Which brings this all to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy… An experience with a phenomenally integrative EMDR therapist in 2004 saved my emotional life (when I was two years sober and still struggling with maladaptive dissociation). I received my training in 2005-2006, and jumped in with both feet, regularly offering the therapy to my clients. While working on my doctoral studies, I first attended the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) annual meeting in 2007. Brazenly, I introduced myself to EMDR founder Dr. Francine Shapiro to thank her for what she created, yet it was at the conference where I would also meet other wonderful people in the EMDR community who would made even more of a difference for me. One of those people was Dr. Sara Gilman from Encinitas, CA, who became my primary consultant throughout the certification process. She also helped me wade through my frustrations around the politics and personalities in the EMDR community that bothered me immensely. Sara was (and still is) a radiant, real human being who truly understood how my mind worked, and she never once tried to change it. She worked with it and helped me fall in love with EMDR even more! A line that she consistently used in our work together, when I struggled with some of the rigidity in the protocols was, “Jamie, this is what the textbook tells you to do. This is what I actually do.”
That guidance from Sara represents a balance that I hope I have also been able to impart as an EMDR clinician, consultant, educator, and training provider. This guidance was the inspiration for my first book that Premiere Education and Media published in 2011, EMDR Made Simple: 4 Approaches to Using EMDR with Every Client. I knew that the book would likely make me a pariah in the EMDR establishment, and at that time I didn’t care. I believe I had something useful to say from my lived experience about how fundamentalism and rigidity benefits no one, especially people like me with complex trauma and dissociation. Even at that point, I would sit in conference presentations and feel like the powers that be who got the microphone on these topics were talking in such intellectual terms about people who need to be treated in a very human way—the way that Sara treated me. As I learned that EMDR therapy can play well with other therapies and approaches in a spirit of integration and modification, I started bristling when people said things like, “Well, that’s not really EMDR,” generally in putting down a savvy modification or adaptation. It reminded me of hearing people at church say things like, “Well, then you’re not really a Christian if you believe, say, or do that (insert any violation of the "rules" here).”
Ouch—why were people connected to a therapeutic modality that I loved, a therapy that helped me to heal from much of that trauma, spouting the same kind of aggression?
I dug in to investigate my reactions that were being elicited, and in 2010 I ended up writing an explanatory model that would become the basis for EMDR Made Simple—something I dubbed “the Four Faces of EMDR.” The idea is based on a teaching of St. Augustine called The Four Voices of God, presented for a modern audience by Fr. Benedict Groschel in the book Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development. We studied this Augustine teaching in my Catholic graduate program and it was honestly the most important take away for me. People relate to God in one of four primary ways—as truth, as fire/oneness, as beauty, and a goodness. Of course we can have secondary paths of relating (I am fire/oneness first, and beauty second), and we tend to get along the least with the people whose style of relating to God most differs from our own (e.g., for me that’s the “truth” people… the theologians, dogmatic types, and to offer a clinical parallel, the strictly quantitative researchers). Augustine taught that all are different, and all have their place, for God shows up in a variety of ways and forms.
Call me crazy (I truly don’t care, it’s a compliment these days), this idea seemed to fit as it relates to all psychotherapies and the controversies that ensue about model fidelity versus tendencies to innovate and to modify. And from there I proposed “the Four Faces of EMDR:”
I’ve long embraced that all of these faces of EMDR are valuable, and we need all of them in the clinical arena. Since I attempt to be as non-dogmatic as possible, I also agree it’s possible to identify with more than one face. For instance, although primarily Face 2, I have a great deal of Face 4 in me. I consider the Dancing Mindfulness approach to expressive arts therapy that I developed in 2012 to be an extension of my EMDR work and thus Face 4 in many ways. Additionally, a person may see themselves as somewhere between Face 1-2 or between Face 2-3. Although I am Face 2, I can pull out my "Face 1" language and savvy when I need it, especially in offering foundational (basic) trainings or in communicating my ideas to other Face 1 people.
I published this model in an attempt to promote some semblance of unity and cohesion among people who love and are intrigued by the wonders of EMDR therapy. Of course many resented me for it, and many considered me a genius for it… I’ll let you be your own judge of that. I’ve been thinking a great deal about “The Four Faces of EMDR” since the COVID-19 pandemic thrust an entire community of therapists, not just EMDR therapists, into working in telehealth…an area where so few of us are trained and where few research studies exist on best practices. As battles ensued around me over propriety and appropriateness in shifting EMDR therapy to telehealth (e.g., do you let people self-tap or not?, is it ethical to do trauma work online with people who dissociate?, is it prudent to venture into an area where there is so little research?, should we be taking advice on online therapy from people who are in different ideological camps?), the Jamie who wrote EMDR Made Simple ten years ago re-emerged.
I admit, especially since I am now an EMDRIA-approved trainer who has more Face 1 qualities than she used to, I’ve sometime wondered if EMDR Made Simple did more harm than good in helping therapists hone their EMDR craft. I am much less rebellious and a lot more party line as it relates to proper EMDR technique than I was back then. I’ve learned that the technique isn’t the enemy; it’s the attitude and approach that people take to the technique that causes problems. You can use it rigidly, or you can use it artfully. I even wrote two pieces lauding proper technique and explaining how I reconciled with the standard protocol here on this blog. I’ve come to appreciate that much of what I initially interpreted as rigidity in Dr. Shapiro was truly her push to get EMDR therapy validated as evidence-based by the metrics of empirical research. Even though thinking in those terms does not serve me either personally or clinically, I see how it serves our larger community. And in 2018, Springer Publishing—one of the largest publishers of mainstream EMDR material and the publisher of The Journal of EMDR Practice and Research—put out my second EMDR book (EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma Focused Care, co-authored with Dr. Stephen Dansiger). Rebel Jamie from 2010-2011 was a bit shocked by that one!
Yet in the week when we switched over to telehealth and I struggled to find resources for my trainees and community—I listened to the different voices and the old Jamie who wrote EMDR Made Simple paid me a visit. I realized that rebel Jamie is who I need to be for myself right now, and how I need to show up for my students and my community. As I declared on a public webinar I did with my friend Mark Brayne on March 22, however you do EMDR in your office and in whatever face you work—transfer that to telehealth. Your confidence in your approach will inevitably translate and we can continue to ease or even end some suffering during this difficult time. There’s plenty of time to debate and even to research when all of this is over. For now, show up for your clients with whatever EMDR face you wear and do your best to honor other EMDR and EMDR-related clinicians who are doing the same.
Adapt - to make suitable for new use or purpose; become adjusted to new conditions (merriam-webster.com)
COVID-19 has brought disruption to everyone’s lives in so many different ways. I never imagined my life and daily routines would be so drastically altered in a week. My kids are at home all day now instead of going to school and will probably finish up the school year interacting with their teacher and classmates through Zoom and being semi-homeschooled by myself and my husband. We can’t go to restaurants or workout at the gym, and a trip to the grocery store feels like a wild goose chase trying to figure out what store stocks when and who will have everything on my list.
My therapy practice has drastically changed as well. Hardly anyone, clinician or client, is in the office, which is normally bustling. We had to shut down our yoga studio, and I haven’t been able to practice in the space that has been my yoga home for years. In just a few days, I had to figure out how to meet with clients remotely in case either one of us is quarantined. Teletherapy never was a platform I wanted to use because of the nature of the trauma work I do, but at this point, it isn’t a choice; it’s a necessity.
In short, everything is turned upside down and what was the norm a week ago, feels like ancient history and who knows if it will go back to that way of life ever again. I spent the last few days grieving and feeling like I was living in crisis mode, trying to make sense of everything and finding a stable footing. I know my family is fortunate; my husband and I both still have our jobs and the ability to work from home, we have our health and endless resources. Our theme for life today is adaptation, and we must find new ways to adjust to these new conditions.
Take time to grieve and have a breakdown. There is so much turmoil and uncertainty now; acknowledging this can help you cope with these feelings. And it’s okay to be sad about the more superficial changes like not being able to stop by Target randomly or having a mid-afternoon cappuccino at Starbucks. Take the time you need to experience and process these feelings.
Be mindful and stay in the present moment. Even with all the stress and chaos happening around us, there are so many positive moments that we could miss. It could be your kids laughing and talking as they are playing Minecraft together or hearing the spring peepers at night. By being mindful and paying attention, we can strengthen the importance of these positive moments.
Limit social media and the news. It’s so easy to get caught up in minute by minute updates in the news and all of the commentary on social media. It’s beneficial to stay informed but do so in small doses to avoid vicarious trauma.
Find control in the things you can. There are so many restrictions being placed on us right now in regard to where we can go and who we can be around. Businesses and restaurants are being told to close, people are losing their jobs, and normal resources are scarce. This can trigger a feeling of not having control, and it is important to find control in the things you can. It may be as simple as setting a time to get up in the morning or when to eat meals. Take the initiative to turn off the news and limit social media and go outside for a walk.
You are not alone. No one on this planet is immune to what is happening right now. In different ways, everyone is affected by this pandemic. My hope is that we, as a global community, find solidarity in this. It is a time to come together and find strength in this shared experience. If you feel that you are the only one overwhelmed, anxious, angry, remember, you are not alone. We are all learning how to adapt, and we are all in this together.
You know it’s over when they let you enter without first scrubbing your hands.
This ends one of two ways. Only one means coming home with the one you love.
Safety precautions are no easier in intensive care, just clearer.
The ventilator, translucent skin, the unsteady beat of the monitors--all scream vulnerability and so, of course, of course you wash and gown and mask. That’s obvious.
The dying parent. The tiny babies. Every cell in your body wants to shield them from danger, even – especially – the invisible danger clinging to you from outside, hitching a ride closer to them. Looking for a way in; their vulnerability an invitation.
They can’t protect themselves.
Protecting them is obvious even when it’s not easy. You respect the barriers marking the threshold between the menace outside and the relative (hoped for, prayed for) safety here, inside.
When you can see blue blood rushing beneath translucent skin, it’s not hard to wash your hands.
The line used to be hard and sharp. Maybe it was imaginary, but it seemed straightforward. Safety is here: danger is there.
Now, the ink has smeared until that line becomes earth, becomes air encircling each of you and what does it mean to be safe now?
Ah, but you know what it means to keep a distance, so that you can protect.
You remember. It’s planted in the marrow of your bones.
How do you love through panes of glass? With a heart beating so hard you’re certain your tiny babies must hear it, too. When you touch them with a gloved hand, is it warm? Do they know it’s you?
Only your voice can touch without danger. The soft lullaby you sing into the incubators when you have to leave them. And the way his heart speeds up when he hears you coming into his hospital room.
On that final morning, they let you in without scrubbing. You touch your father’s hand with yours, unwashed and ungloved, because that line doesn’t matter anymore. It’s how you know it’s over.
All those years before, you got to take your babies home, drawing a new line around them, hard and strong for as long as you possibly could until you cracked it open to take them out. Out there. Unwashed hands and air travel leave them with bronchitis, but they’re stronger now and recover. You gave them time to grow and for their lungs to heal.
And you know it isn’t over.
It’s planted in the marrow of your bones.
And now? Now you will stay away for as long as you must if it means they will be safe.
You will love them again through a pane of glass (or a computer screen) when they are six-thousand miles away instead of in your kitchen, cooking and bickering, where you wish they were (where they’re supposed to be) instead.
You will send your voice through the telephone and hug over a video link and listen through a window for the music you know is out there because the line defining dangerous and safe has shattered, and you will protect them with the distance that you keep because this is what you do when you love.
- Visual Media and Poem by Dr. Mara Tesler Stein
The response to COVID-19 is unlike anything I’ve witnessed in my forty years on this planet. Seeing so many events and yes, even whole sporting seasons being suspended, has me wondering if I’m living in some kind of twilight zone. Or in one of the apocalyptic movies that I love so much. While I appreciate the arguments I’ve read about mitigating risk and slowing the spread of the potentially deadly virus, my mixed emotions about everything are boiling over, prompting me to write this piece and share something I want to scream from the rooftops. Why don’t you care this much about risk and contamination when it comes to trauma?
There is so much rhetoric out there, much of it legitimate, about putting the vulnerable at risk by exposing them to the virus. Even though I’ve soldiered on to finish some planned events this week, a concern exists over how people may judge me for potentially putting others at risk. Where is this same level of concern in a country and indeed a world where violence against women and children is the most brutal pandemic of them all? What about the endless stream of brutality and invalidation that developmentally vulnerable children can be exposed to on a daily basis from parents, other family members, teachers or peers? And have you ever stopped to consider the systemic injustices that the poor, underprivileged, and underrepresented minorities in our society have to battle consistently? All of these are a short list of risk factors living in our midst every day that, if left untreated, will tragically blossom into complex post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions, “personality disorders,” dissociative disorders, and cause or complicate a whole host of other physical health conditions like heart disease, hypertension fibromyalgia, or cancer. Read the Adverse Childhood Experiences study and the public health initiatives from that study for a primer if you don’t believe me.
The heart of my teaching as an author and clinical specialist in traumatic stress disorders is that to truly understand the human phenomenon of unhealed trauma and how to treat it, you must break down the word origin. The English word trauma is a direct translation from the Greek word meaning wound. My working definition of trauma is any unhealed wound. You can check out my TEDx talk on the trauma as wound metaphor from 2015 on YouTube for the full teaching. Here are the highlights: understanding how physical wounding, illness, and injury works is the key to understanding all other kinds of trauma—emotional, sexual, spiritual, etc. Think of everything you know about physical wounds. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some may require more urgent care than others or they can be fatal. Whether you are talking about a scrape or a gunshot wound, all wounds need care. Sometimes that care is to wash it out and then give it time and space to breathe, and other times the care needs to be professional. Of course, people with compromised immune systems or other health problems are naturally more vulnerable and professional care may be imperative.
Wounds generally need treated from the outside-in to stabilize, although true healing occurs from the inside-out, over time. Check out the talk if you want even more of the metaphorical parallels between physical and emotional wounding; believe me, I can’t shut up about them. A major point to highlight is that it can feel easier to deal with a physical injury or illness, especially one that is visible like a broken leg or an audible cough. Because they are visible in the realm of the five senses, they are more likely to be validated by others as problematic. And if the risk of a more immediate fatality looms, the concern is generally worse. I argue that this is due to humankind’s overall fear of death and dying, but there’s not enough room in this blog to even begin to go there. Maybe the next one…
Yet if wounds are unseen, like the kind we experience in our hearts, through our emotions, and in our souls, we are more likely to get told things like “get over it,” or “pick yourself up by the bootstraps.” Or my favorite: “You’re triggered all the time! Enough already.” Usually it’s the people who complain about our triggering that are the ones who have done some, if not most of the wounding. Let me be clear—we’ve all hurt other people and we’ve all been hurt by other people. The severity of some wounds may require professional intervention, just like with physical wounding, while other wounds may simply need a little space, time, and tender loving care from another human being like a friend or confidant in order to heal. Having an awareness of how we are wounded and how we’ve wounded others is the key to understanding the risk of contaminating others with the blood of our own unhealed trauma. Hopefully this awareness can inspire willingness to proactively heal ourselves so that we do not contaminate others with our words, actions, behaviors, and the sordid fruit of our own unhealed wounds. Because it is often those we love—our partners, our children, other members of our family, and our friends—that we can harm the most. Until that widespread awareness happens, perhaps we can at least do less harm. In physical healthcare there is a greater sense of awareness that safety measures must be taken to minimize the spread of bodily fluids and pathogens in order to prevent disease. When we heal ourselves emotionally, we engage in similar prevention and initiative for mental health…see the parallel?
There’s another angle for me to share this week, this one much more personal. Like many in the clinical professions, my own struggles with trauma, mental illness, and addiction led me to this work. In recent years I’ve been much more public about my seventeen year journey in recovery from addictions, a dissociative disorder, and bouts of persistent depressive disorder (formerly called dysthymia). Due to reasons having nothing to do with the Corona virus, the last three months have been hell. I’m struggling to date again after an adulthood filled with poor romantic relationship choices resulting from the impact of childhood and adolescent trauma. Just before Christmas, one of my best friends died by suicide and I’m still dealing with a flurry of emotions stemming from his loss. And the mounting pressure of growing a business and becoming a more public figure in my field, I have to admit, is getting to me. I am privileged to have access to the best possible mental health care. I have the most kickass recovery support system in the world, an inner circle of friends that would walk through the fire for me or with me, a daily wellness practice, grounded spirituality, and a solid commitment to self-care. Yet the sheer volume of work and travel, coupled with a growing disconnect from relationships I value, is causing a level of exhaustion unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Two weeks ago, I experienced my first significant suicidal impulse in years and earlier this week, it flared up again. There are plenty of factors that keep me protected, yet the reality is that I just want off the fucking merry-go-round. Exhaustion was the main culprit, coupled with a persistent conflict I’ve been feeling over having such success in my professional life while still struggling with interpersonal relationships and my inner world. I hate that the more honest I can get about my suffering, the better that I teach. People draw strength from it, and it can also make me feel like all I was put on this earth for is to teach and to help others. I struggle knowing that so many people see me as someone who inspires them when I still feel like such a train wreck who has been having trouble getting out of bed in the morning on more days than not. On the day of the second major bout, I told my manager and friend that when I meditated and listened to my body, the one word that came up was, “Rest.” I had this overwhelming sense that my body needed a good few weeks to rest and reset herself, in the larger scope of reevaluation I’ve been conducting about my life, my work, and how I spend my time.
Of course, Dr. Jamie the public figure was hesitant to cancel anything—I have commitments and a reputation and a business! Although I have taken time off for my mental health in the past, I feel like I’m in a whole new territory now regarding my schedule and how many people rely on me. I’m not proud to admit this, but I actually said to my manager, “Maybe if I get this Coronavirus thing, I would actually get some rest and nobody would question it.” That was a wakeup call. And when widespread suspensions forced me to cancel my upcoming teaching tour of the UK and Ireland, it was even more of a wakeup call for me that I wasn’t really disappointed. I adore traveling and teaching abroad. And yet my body, mind, and soul needs the rest more. I’ve been granted it due to the risk and contamination precautions around a physical virus, and yes, I feel less guilty taking the time because of this physical manifestation of a disease and its implications for spreading. Yet would people in my work world—the people who book me, the people who come to my trainings, the people who depend on me in my life—have been as compassionate if I needed to rest citing a preventative mental health concern?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
The bigger problems is that me—Jamie—wasn’t even compassionate enough with herself.
Could this be the result of some healing in me that I still have to let happen? Of course. Yet I also believe it’s the result of societal conditioning that none of us are immune to—this idea that physical health care will always take precedence over mental health care. That the medical model trumps the holistic model. And that what shows up in, on, or through our physical bodies and appearances is more important than what is inside.
Enough of this already.
Let’s connect in a way that honors the physical in a healthy way, yet values that who we really are as people is so much more.
The healing power of human connection rests at the center of my work, and this week I’ve been given multiple personal reminders about how this power is where our hope rests. Nothing is more important to me than human connection, and I want to reestablish this primacy before the endless grind of touring and “being public” makes me resent it. My manager and long-time friend Mary, my best friend Allie, and countless other people in my kickass support village have breathed me back to life this week. Whether in person, on the phone, or even through the sometimes cold medium of text, my people were there for me and I am grateful beyond measure for their time and their love. Allie, who lost her own father to suicide, reminded me that in order to get through this I would have to be fully honest about what I am feeling, especially with the inner circle. I teach this stuff all the time! It’s not lost on me that the teacher can be the most likely to forget, especially when she’s flirting with burnout. In those moments, the healing power of friendship and being rigorously vulnerable helped me to hear my own lesson.
I wasn’t expecting to share this vulnerably with my readership this soon, and yet here it is. With the healing power of human connection a potential casualty on the COVID-19 chopping block, a reminder is in order. If my story as its unfolding this week has done this in some small way, I’m truly glad I shared it.
Interactions With Vicarious Trauma: The Healer's Search for Absolution by Jennifer Harwood, LCSW, LCAC
After 30 years of working in the field of behavioral health in various capacities, I’m owning the fact that I have dealt with vicarious trauma and PTSD related issues for many years. While I can joke and discount many of the encounters I’ve had through the years as “part of the job,” I wasn’t counting on was the physical and emotional toll the job really had on me. Had I heard some of these stories from others, I wouldn’t hesitate to be concerned at the symptoms and events; but for me, I could handle anything. After a while, I had to discard my cape and realize I was not a superhero with powers to deflect the toxins that had been thrown my way. As much as I dove in and stayed in the trenches to help people overcome their disturbances, I had to pull myself out of those same trenches to find my own healing.
So, what is vicarious trauma, clinician burnout, compassion fatigue? Vicarious trauma occurs when we have been exposed to, experienced, witnessed, or listened to other’s experiences of traumatic material, usually over a period of time. When someone shares their traumatic stories with us in such a way that we can visually experience it with them, we are at risk of activating our own trauma responses. This leads to what some refer to as “burnout”, but what I call vicarious trauma. It is being personally traumatized through the eyes of someone else. Vicarious trauma has a host of signs and symptoms, such as disconnection and/or depersonalization, lack of energy, social withdrawal or isolation, cynicism, despair and hopelessness, sleep and appetite disturbances, disrupted frame of reference, such as an inability to trust our own decisions, minimization, hyper-vigilance, self-loathing, emotional numbness, feeling overwhelmed, intense rage or bouts of crying, anxiety, nightmares, resentments towards others, including clients, feeling unsafe, poor self-care, concentration problems, and feelings of being on an emotional rollercoaster. This list could go on and sounds in large part like the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They are indeed trauma reactions, even if we did not directly witness the trauma, and have been a large piece of my life for quite a while now. I’ve worked to gain an understanding of my own vicarious trauma reactions and feel lead to share this with others. We are not “burned out clinicians” who need to retire; on the contrary, we are wounded healers who understand some things so intensely. Our clients are actually in the best hands they can be in, when we are well ourselves.
When the whole of your work is to help others bear the weight of their souls, the pressure of their pasts, and the anguish of their current situations, it bears on us in a profound way. We dissociate from our emotions just enough to show compassions and empathy but be still able to cut off from those feelings in order to help clients heal. We may find ourselves subject to this pendulating force regardless of the situation, including in our own personal lives.
I have come to believe in the practice of self-care. For me, it’s more than just compassion and healing – it’s survival. When I am in a spiral of negative cause and effects related to the vicarious trauma I’ve witnessed, the replay of my own demons, or a combination of the dark side of the world in which we live, I have to have the escape, the outlet, the life that still exists. Expressions of art, music, prose, or meaningful conversations help me to share that emotional wound. When I write, my soul unburdens itself without fear of judgement, accusations, or denial. What I have inside me needs to be expressed from a place of non-judgement or I will not allow it to purge, and, not purging those feelings is disastrous. It can mean the shutting down of emotional regulation, the disregard for others and myself in a variety of areas, and a general sense of mistrust with the world around me. I need to have light in the times of darkness, for if the cold dampness is allowed to fester, the beauty within is left to ruin. Expression is my escape from the center of my mind which I so desperately need at times. Without the escape, I become tainted and ineffective as a clinician and as a person. And so, my hope in writing about this is that this act of self-expression and owning my experiences with vicarious trauma will help others find an outlet to express their own feelings and experiences. What is left alone too long no longer serves any purpose, except to destroy.
And so, this writing comes from a state of necessity. I am now noticing that the depth of the pain of what I hear all day has had a tremendous effect on me over the course of 30 years, and I’m sure other clinicians feel this way as well. By sharing this experience, I hope we are all able to find the core piece of ourselves that was what started our paths on this journey again. The times of wanting to cancel clients and take the day off, sleep disturbances, experiences with hyper-vigilance and intrusive thoughts were creeping in again like a familiar, but terrifying, old friend. The ghosts of those past mentors, clients, clinicians, and eras had been overtaking each other until I no longer heard the words which needed now be spoken, to me or others. When I can no longer distinguish between clinical appropriateness, my own bias, therapeutic boundaries, and personal fears, it’s time to pull back the reigns and allow some healing to occur. So, as I offer these perspectives to my colleagues, I should also note how very personal this is for me. My life’s work in the field of behavioral health has taken different avenues, but I have never lost my desire to be a guide to those who may need a light. By shedding light on this issue, I hope to find my own light source again in a way that it no longer burns down quite so far. This is how I make amends with my own past mistakes and come to a place of true trauma-informed care, that starts, inevitably, with me.
They’re doing it for the attention.
It’s a refrain uttered everywhere, as people attempt to explain why troubled adults, adolescents, and children behave the way they do. Overused and indiscriminately applied, doing it for the attention has bothered me since I was a trainee in child psychology. Surely, humans do what they do for a wide range of reasons. And if someone is crying out for attention, don’t they deserve—need—us to notice? To attend?
Instead, seeking attention from others is all too often reviled. It’s dismissed as indulgent, considered a reward for undesirable behavior, a reinforcement of disavowed emotion. So, we stop being curious about others’ internal experiences — disconnecting from what they know, feel, need, want, fear — and, necessarily, we disconnect from our own. Rather than noticing, bringing attention to what’s happening inside no matter how confusing or intense or messy, we learn to turn our attention away. We numb, avoid, put aside. It feels safer to stop noticing. If we don’t give it attention, we can make it disappear or pretend it’s not real.
Not so in the process of EMDR therapy. There, the words, “Just notice,” are the foundational guideposts.
“Just notice,” we therapists say. “Let whatever happens, happen.” We may repeat this mantra countless times a day-- a reflex woven into procedural memory as we support clients dealing with trauma.
Just notice? The mother wonders, just notice what?, as she stands over the warming bed of her two-pound baby in the NICU. She tries desperately, silently, to notice what the nurse is showing her about her newborn baby’s skin tone. What if I never get it? she thinks. What if my ability to notice what’s important is broken?
“…and let whatever happens, happen,” we say, as the newly bereaved parent of a baby who died at birth looks at us with wide eyes.
“Let whatever happens, happen? I can’t just notice. I can’t trust my judgment. Just look at this baby, who my body failed, who I have failed…”
We say these words because we know that the key to healing begins with simply noticing. Pay attention. Be curious, see what happens next.
But it’s a catch-22. Trauma fractures our natural ability to notice. It disrupts our capacity to access that calm curiosity that allows us to stay connected to what’s happening inside. Bringing our attention to pain, even though it’s uncomfortable, seems to be essential to recovery. It’s as if we need people to be healed in order to access the healing.
Fortunately, as in all relational psychotherapy, EMDR therapists offer our attuned presence as scaffolding and support as people begin to turn their attention to their internal world. With EMDR therapy, we provide precisely the sort of nuanced appreciation for the ebb and flow of thought and feeling, somatic sensation, and memory that parents must bring to their babies and that, especially in the face of disruptions on the road to parenthood, can seem both frightening and out of reach.
It goes something like this:
As you bring your attention to yourself, just noticing, I will help you. I will notice with you. I will notice the subtle changes in your skin tone, as your cheeks redden and clear, as the tears rise and fall. I will note your breathing and breathe with you. I will not turn away from your fear or your pain or your anger. My nervous system will listen to the rhythms coming from yours. I will notice and then you can notice, too.
That subtle sensation, that flickering emotion, it all matters. “Notice that,” we say, inviting gentle curiosity, remaining just as engaged and attentive as when tears are flowing. “What are you noticing now?” we ask. So often, language is elusive but the emotion, the emergent shift, is palpable and so we lean in. “Just notice it,” we say, affirming that it exists even when it can’t yet be articulated. “That blossoming warmth? That stab in your chest? Just notice it. And when you do, when you let whatever happens happen, we will notice together. We will know its truth and meaning together.”
This is how we walk with our clients into the process of EMDR therapy where everything they notice, no matter how subtle, counts, not just the sobs or the searing flash of memory. It’s also how we accompany bereaved and traumatized parents into the new world born in the face of perinatal trauma. We notice the shrapnel causing pain and blocking healing. Just as important, we nourish and support the gradual creation of connective tissue that forms the foundation of a new sense of self: as a parent to this baby within the matrix of relationships, within this family.
All of it, every single nuance, counts.
“My baby only spent a few days in the NICU,” said one father to me in response to a call for interviewees for our book. “Are you sure you want our story?” “Our baby died,” whispered another. “Do you really want to interview us?”
It’s a common concern that parents express to therapists. Does it count? Does our experience really matter? Even if my baby is fine now, or if there are no marks on my body to prove that we’ve walked through the fire or no living baby to parent after all we endured? Do I have permission to notice what this means to me, how it actually feels? And if I do notice where it hurts, can I show you? Will you pay attention?
So we sit across from the families who land in our offices-- parents unmoored from what they used to know about themselves, about babies, pregnancies, and the way the world is supposed to work when you’ve followed all the rules, and we pay attention. We notice and most importantly, we trust what they notice. We show them with our engaged, calm presence, staying out of the way but staying.
If we’ve been fortunate to become a parent to a full-term, healthy baby, conceived, gestated, and born without incident, it can be challenging to learn to decipher these signs of dislocation and the consequences. When the road to parenthood has been pitted with earthquakes and storms, parents cannot trust in what once seemed natural and easy. Without that steady sense of “I can figure this out,” or “everything will be okay,” parents feel unmoored and may desperately turn to others to steady themselves.
They often turn to professionals, like us.
And yes, they are doing it for the attention.
And in fact, they benefit when we pay attention-- when we see them as they are, validate their experience of their journey, acknowledge their pain, and accompany them as nonjudgmental witnesses. Our attention is what helps them learn to notice both the obvious and the nuanced and let what happens happen. Our attention is what helps them regain feelings of confidence and competence. Gradually, they begin to believe in themselves as parents, including, “I can learn to read this baby’s cues,” or, “I can trust my sense that something is wrong (or right) with myself or my baby,” or, “My pain counts even though other parents are experiencing a grief and fear I can’t even fathom.” Or even, “I feel love and hope and joy even though strangers glance at my baby and turn away,” or, “I am a loving parent even though my baby died.”
Our attention validates these truths. Noticing them guides our clients to turn their own attention back to their lived experience in all its mess and meaning. Only then can they weave together the strands of their experience, appreciating them all as part of a larger whole.
In the last two weeks I have suffered three injuries. None of them so terrible that I required major medical intervention, but bad enough to leave me generally pretty bruised and crappy feeling. It was on the heels of some bruised ribs and a fall down the stairs that my partner invited me to attend a woodshop orientation workshop in which we’d be introduced to various saws and machinery and how to use them correctly. You can see where this is going…
The second saw in, the instructor casually referenced the availability of a safety mechanism and cavalierly noted that most people find it a nuisance and moved along without showing us how to use it. Naturally, when it came to my turn the saw spit back a piece of wood at me which rocketed into my hip at what felt like 8,000 mph. The pain shot down my leg and my body went tingly then numb. I could barely stand. The instructor and other participant just looked on in silence and moved on to the next machine. My partner, who’d invited me, looked at me with genuine concern and whispered, “are you ok??” I clenched my jaw and nodded and hobbled along behind the group to the next machine where I put on a brave face and completed shaving off an eighth of an inch of a piece of wood on a drum saw. Afterwards, I began to feel overheated and a little faint, so I turned to my fella and said, “I think I’m gonna sit this one out, you stay here!” It was at this point that I exited to the parking lot and proceeded to cry my eyes out. Every part of my body hurt, and I was so tired and overwhelmed there was no way to keep it in. Awhile later, I sent him a kindly text explaining that I was not feeling well and I’d walk back home and for him to enjoy the rest of the workshop. My partner responded in the sanest way possible by immediately calling me, asking where I was and if I was ok. After admitting that I’d been crying in a parking lot by myself, he said rather plainly, “you sitting in a parking lot crying by yourself is more important than me learning to use a band saw. You hide what you’re feeling really well.”
He’s not wrong. I grew up in a feelings phobic household. Sure, my parents cared for us and treated us well, but I don’t even need one hand to count the number of times I’ve seen family members cry in front of me. Sadness was treated as a medical problem, rather than a natural emotional response. So many people have it worse! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! And power through! Were the well-intended mantras of our household. Sadness was something tucked away and saved for the medical professionals. And to be clear, I have dealt with diagnosable depression that has required medical intervention. But I do wonder if the inability to express sadness only compounded those feelings.
It wasn’t until the day after my woodworking injury when talking with a friend that I realized how insane my response had been. My natural response had been to save those feelings until I was by myself and walk home on a crippled hip so as not to bother anyone. In that moment I did not believe that my pain and experience might be more important than someone else learning to use a dumb saw. I did not realize that it might be a little out there to suppose I needed to keep it together in front of an instructor who clearly wasn’t interested in my safety, a stranger, and a person who cares deeply about my well-being.
These are the lies we tell ourselves: my pain isn’t important, or least not important enough to bother anyone. I cannot show what I’m feeling. It’s better to suffer in silence. No one likes someone who’s always complaining. I cannot look weak. I need to have it together. It’s always a little funny when I become aware of this stuff, because like hey, it’s literally my job to help people process feelings in a variety of ways. And as much as I write about it, and give talks, and work with others, I’m still a human for whom this exists. Honestly, it kind of makes me feel like a fraud sometimes. I guess that’s the other lie: you’re not good enough.
I think it takes most of us awhile before we even realize that some of the beliefs that underpin the way we operate in the world are lies – mostly, we just think this is the way we are, and the way we handle things without subjecting those beliefs to any litmus tests. It usually takes someone else asking me, “how is that serving you?” before I put those beliefs to the test. How does it serve us to buy into these beliefs we have about ourselves, what we deserve, and what we should do? Are these beliefs and the actions that extend from them benefiting us? Or are they hurting us? Do they make my life better? Or worse? I’m going out on a limb here, but in retrospect it seems like deciding to walk home on a busted leg because of the belief that I cannot show my feelings wasn’t making my life any better.
But seeing the lie still isn’t always enough for me to do things differently. It’s hard to get away from that initial gut reaction to default into the same old way of doing things. There are a million reasons we find to not do things different. It’s hard. It might not even be better anyway. It will definitely be uncomfortable. These are just a few that I can buy into. I mean if you grow up in a household where crying in front of another person is never experienced, how do you even begin to test out that kind of vulnerability? Truthfully, I’m not sure. But I know this, after I let it all out to someone I care about and whom I trust in return, I went home, was tucked in under some blankets and fed chocolate in front of the TV until I fell asleep. And you know what? I felt better. I’m not always sure I know the answer, but I am fairly sure at this point that if I don’t try being vulnerable with the right people in the moment, I will always end up crying by myself in a parking lot. And at this point, that just isn’t serving me well anymore.
"How am I to know the good side from the bad?"
"You will know, when you are calm. At peace, passive."
―Luke Skywalker and Yoda (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)
There’s a running joke in my family: “Jamie, what do you do?” My brother first asked it when I moved back from Europe and worked several part time jobs during graduate school. I gigged in coffeehouses for tips, taught a little guitar, picked up some writing and research work, served as a substitute teacher, and I coached speech and debate. Over fifteen years later, I can still get that question. My stepson once asked me, “Jamie, how many jobs do you have? I count eight. Or is it nine?”
Yes, my primary vocation is as a trauma therapist. Yet this work enables me to also work as an educator/trainer, author, advocate, media producer of educational content, mentor of others and leader of a training organization. My interest in holistic healing also drives me to work as an expressive arts therapist, musician, dancer, yoga teacher, and reiki master. And while collectively that’s many roles and numerous tasks, they all fuse together in helping me to realize my ultimate vocational purpose—to facilitate transformative experiences for myself and others. At least that’s the line I’ve been testing out in the press bio. Yet if I’m keeping it very real and true to my pop culture nerdiness, I vocationally identify as a Jedi knight. Or perhaps even a Jedi master…
This connection struck me so potently during my second viewing of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker over the holiday season. So as to not give away too much for those who haven’t seen the film, let’s just say that the heroine of this generation, Rey, kicks some major ass. And these feats come after her training takes her to a new level of depth and thorough exploration of her own dark side. I am a Jedi knight because I fight for the good of humanity that is represented by the light side of the force. My mission is to paint light in this world, and by doing so, illuminate people’s ability to connect with the light of their own true nature. I also teach people not to be afraid of their shadows—the dark side of the force that may lure them or even take root within them. I can do this work because I’ve met my dark side face-to-face and I am fervently committed to deepening my training.
The Force as we call it in the fictional Star Wars canon is very real indeed. Call it reiki (the movement of life force energy), chi, prana, shakti, nefesh, universal alignment, or the Holy Spirit. You can even see it as the enthusiasm that is generated when people come together for a common cause. We’ve witnessed that collective power manifest for the dark side (e.g., hate groups of various brands) or for the light side of the force (e.g., charities and advocacy organizations, mutual help movements). We are called to be in attunement with and to work with the life force that dances through us every day. Our training—combined with our motivation—decides where the energy will flow.
There’s a yogic teaching which states that energy follows attention. So where we place our mind and our efforts, there our life force will flow. In the tradition I study, we teach that eventually a conscious crossover happens. With enough training and patterning, attention follows energy. In other words, the force will guide us. I’ve lived through many crossover experiences where my attention could have been pulled either way. Yet enough training in the light side of things has made it more likely that the light will triumph. That’s why I am sober. That’s why—despite my difficulties—I’m living the most adaptive life that I can. And that’s why I relish helping others connect with their light.
Master Yoda is my true role model and teacher as a clinical professional. During my doctoral studies I reconnected with the Star Wars films as an adult and thought, “Why aren’t they teaching Jedi in graduate techniques courses?” Indeed, it’s the same frustration that I voice about why our graduate training doesn’t involve the vast wisdom of yoga (not to be confused with Yoda, yet the similarity is revealing) and Eastern philosophy.
I advised many clients in recovery over the years that they could use Yoda, or the Force itself, as their Higher Power. Yoda’s famous teaching, “Do or do not, there is no try,” explains why daily practice and routines allow me to dust off and clear my ego enough to connect with the light side of the force. I have a Yoda statue on my altar and puja table at home where I keep other spiritual pictures and statues. That’s how much his archetypal wisdom feeds me, clearly inspired by Star Wars creator George Lucas’ penchant for Joseph Campbell. Yoda’s teaching that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” is the perfect blend of Buddha and 12-step teaching on resentment that I need reminded of on the regular. When I think of Yoda imparting this wisdom to Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader, I’m reminded that I do and will always have the potential to turn. For the Force is one—it’s not separate and it’s all encompassing. It’s the ultimate polarity. How I practice and choose to heal determines where my energy will flow and how it will serve me… and the world.
As Rey proudly declares in The Rise of Skywalker during her fiercest battle, “I am all the Jedi.” She is my beacon for realizing the healing possibilities of oneness. So today, and I hope that for all the days of this life, to remain a Jedi knight. My sweet friend James, who geeks out with me about many things, recently called me a Jedi master, and this may have been the greatest compliment I ever received. He challenged me to look at all of the areas in my own life in which I have gained mastery and I’m grateful that today I can see it, even as I train for a greater sense of mastery over the perils of my ego and the lure of the dark side. Moreover, in this life I live I am privileged to be a mentor, teacher, and guide for others in their quest to be led from the darkness to the light. If those thing make me a master, I accept.
May I do Yoda proud in my vocation.
So as my brother might ask, “What do you do?” Share in the comments here in the blog or wherever this gets shared on social media. Go to your favorite movies, books, or art sources for meaningful metaphor or allegory. Let’s investigate the marvelous interplay of how people are living their purpose out there in the world. Or, if you believe you have not yet tapped into this purpose, how would you like to identify?
Have fun and go with it…
Photo Credit: Christina Dine
For as long as I can remember, people have labeled me the “smart” kid. Being smart was my identity that earned me a curious combination of respect and bullying from my peers in elementary school. My teachers would marvel, calling me a “walking Encyclopedia,” yet never quite knowing how to handle my social ineptitude, which I now know was a behavioral and emotional response to complex trauma. In high school I was voted the “class brain,” and there are several painful stories of people—both would-be romantic partners and friends—finding me too smart for them. Even the spiritual name that my teacher gave me, Pragya, means intelligent, wise one, specifically attributed to the goddess Saraswati’s holistic knowledge. I can acknowledge that my unique breed of intelligence allows me to do many big things in the world as it relates to my business, writing, advocating, training and mentoring others…all that jazz.
So why do I still feel so fucking dumb when it comes to navigating my own life and recovery? I’ve clocked more hours in trauma-focused therapy than I’ve spent working on my advanced degrees. You are never going to meet anyone more willing to work on her own shit, and I’ve done that from a variety of perspectives since I first got sober in 2002. Spiritual direction, intense yoga practice, reiki, Rolfing and the whole menu of bodywork, intuitive exploration… you name it, I’ve done it. I even gave some of the old fashioned religion that was the source of so much of my own trauma a try here and there, on the off chance that they were “right” all along. These last two months of 2019 revealed to me another profound layer of the deep damage that these experiences created, impairing my ability to function as I’d like to in the world. I’m still wading through what has been revealed with my village of helpers and may share more publicly at a later time. I will say this in the spirit of candidness that has come to define my approach to mental health advocacy: I still have a hard time shaking the core belief that I am stupid as it relates to trusting myself and my own judgment. Being hopeful as it relates to anything connected to personal happiness sets off an allergic reaction of sorts in me, sending me back to the I am stupid and I am cursed beliefs that were put there by a variety of abuses, especially the ones that deeply connected to spiritual or identity issues. I often ask myself, “How can a smart person be so dumb? When will I ever fucking learn?”
And in that second question rests a big part of the answer—I am not stupid, yet I can be foolish. Somewhere during this month from hell that was December 2019, it dawned on me that foolish is my one word intention for 2020. I’ve engaged in this ancient practice of embracing a word at the dawn of each year for almost a decade now, and foolish certainly is the most curious choice of a word to emerge. Yet it has, so I’m going with it.
There are many meanings of the word foolish dating back to Middle English, with many pejoratives like weak-minded, silly, or lacking judgment offered up as definitions. Yet one definition which is largely associated with the Holy fool archetype is “an ardent enthusiast who cannot resist an opportunity to indulge an enthusiasm.” That’s certainly me. Have you ever seen me dance? Or geek out about something that incites my interests and passions? Or bubble with an Anne Frank-like optimism that even with all of the shit happening in the world, people are still really good at heart?
One of my most precious spiritual influences, the Dutch theologian Fr. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) cast a very beautiful light on what it means to be foolish in his complied reader Spiritual Formation (2015). Foolish means “slow to believe.” He goes on:
Foolish is a hard word. It can also crack open a cover of fear and self-consciousness and lead to a whole new knowledge of being human. It is a wake-up call, a ripping off of blindfolds, a tearing down of useless, protective devices. You foolish people, don’t you see? Don’t you hear? Don’t you know?
Wow. I’ve been in this process of my healing for quite a while now. And framing it this way allows me to offer a new compassion to myself. My hesitancy to believe beautiful things about the reality of my true self, my nature, and the non-abusive reality of the Divine is a legitimate response to the impact of trauma. It’s been slow going for sure yet when I look at the progression of my life since I first started questioning things at the age of 19, I can see that I’ve learned quite a bit. My belief about myself and my spirit have shifted immensely. Of course I can get tripped up when I fall into some of the same patterns or get tangled up in the same knots, especially as it relates to love and personal relationships. I’ve had quite a bit of shame to wade through being a public figure in the trauma recovery movement and ending up in a second marriage that was abusive on every level. Cops were called, the whole nine yards—in time, I may choose to reveal more publicly yet this is a big step for me saying this much out loud.
“How can a smart person be so dumb? When will I ever fucking learn?,” I cried out many nights as I scrambled for a way to get out and end up with my sanity intact.
Today, just over two years later, the important point to emphasize is that I got out, and more than that, I’ve forgiven myself for being human and maybe even a bit foolish. It’s taken me a long time to learn certain things, and that education continues. May I be kind to myself about this reality in 2020 and in whatever years I may get to live beyond that.
May I also recognize that being foolish isn’t all bad—teasing out the doubts and being eager to learn new ways of being in the world fuels my sense of curiosity that always keeps this life interesting. And the enthusiasm that comes with being foolish—every time I feel my own smile on my face I can tap into some sense of gratitude for not losing that child-like sense of wonder, even though I’ve felt battered around by the world quite a bit. One of my favorite artists, Krishna Das, wove these beautiful verses called My Foolish Heart into one of his chants:
My foolish heart
Why do you weep?
You throw yourself away again
Now you cry yourself to sleep
My foolish heart
When will you learn?
You are the eyes of the world
And there’s nowhere else to turn
It’s little wonder I embraced these verses as an anthem of sorts in the wake of getting out of my marriage. As I’ve listened to them over and over again in the past weeks, I’m hearing an invitation to trust myself more, to trust in the process of it all with greater abandon. There may still be some big healing projects that need to take place for this trust to fully crystallize, and I’m game. Like any holy fool, I cannot resist the opportunity to indulge the enthusiasm.
Photograph of Dr. Jamie by Mary Riley
I am having a very difficult time getting into the fullness of Christmas spirit this year, still very sad that this will be your first Christmas without us. I’m sitting on the couch right now, smiling so widely as I think about hanging out here on Christmas night in 2017. I was going through my divorce and knew it would be a rough one, and you took great care to make sure that we would have fun that evening—eating my mother’s leftovers, lots of desserts, singing songs, and indulging me in my holiday tradition, a viewing of Meet Me in St. Louis. Although not a Christmas movie in a classic sense, I always admired the Christmas story line in the film and Judy Garland’s performance of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as the pinnacle of Judy at her loveliest. I weep whenever I take in that performance, thinking about how tragically she died and how bitterly the sting of addiction and unhealed trauma affected her. You held me that night as I cried; it never bothered you that I cry so much. Then (since it was your first time watching the film) you grew shocked as, shortly after the song ended, you saw young Tootie take a baseball bat and destroy the snowmen out of her own rage about the family move. “Wellll,” you said in your tenor of commentary, “That certainly changes the meaning of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas for me!”
This memory is everything I love about our friendship—deep laughs, deep tears, and the intimacy of shared experience. I wish we could have had even more of these moments, or that I could have more fully savored the ones we did share. Because of your struggles, somewhere deep inside, I feared that we would lose you young, and yet the reality is that more years is not a guarantee for any of us. When I was scrolling through Facebook on the day we cleaned out your apartment, I came across a meme with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.”
So many little things that I would love to experience again—comparing our rough days back at YSU over dinner at Christman Dining Hall, road trips in my car singing at the tops of our lungs, time spent dancing mindfully—especially receiving your beautiful teaching at your 2018 facilitator training using a bagpipe version of Amazing Grace to get us more viscerally attuned to our breath. Our last formal Dancing Mindfulness experience together included bringing you to Mill Creek Park where I taught a class at the end of August, then I drove you around the west side of Youngstown to show you my sites—the house I grew up in as a kid, my high school, the first place that sold me cigarettes underage. As much time as we spent in a car together before, something inside told me to show you those places, and you wittily called our drive the “Dancing Mindfulness Founder’s Day Tour.” We sang the Sunset Boulevard soundtrack all the way back to Warren, particularly relishing in “As If We’ve Never Said Goodbye.” You bought me better Valentine’s gifts than any straight male I ever actually dated, gifts that usually involved sparkle, glitter, or flowers. Gifts that evidenced how well you knew me. Waking up to your awesome messages and Bitmojis when I was on the road training, encouraging me to keep taking care of myself while working my brand of magic, as you named it. You often called me “tender trainer” in these messages and that is one of the loveliest compliments I ever received. The two of us exchanging boy talk, which usually consisted of you making many points about how I was shortchanging myself. The two of us dancing to Jesus on the Mainline at the Krisha Das kirtan/concert just after your 40th birthday. When we sat down for the final meditation, you kissed your hands and then kissed my feet, as this is a common sign of respect one shows their teachers in India. I cried at the meaning of the gesture and cried even more deeply when you said, “I just wanted to touch Maharajji’s foot.”
Maharajji… the term of endearment for our beloved Neem Karoli Baba; the great Indian saint who left the body in 1973, the teacher of Ram Dass, was the subject of many conversations between us. As kids who grew up largely tortured by Christianity yet still fascinated by all aspects of spirituality, the teachings of Ram Dass and Maharajji were balm for both of our souls. We reveled at what it meant to walk each other home, long seeing each other as guardian angels brought into each others’ lives. We marveled at the simplicity of Neem Karoli Baba’s teachings, namely that if you want to see God, love people. When I helped to clean out your apartment a few days ago, chills overcame me when I saw a card on your fridge; I sent it to you this summer while you were incarcerated. I forgot that I wrote this Maharajji teaching on the inside: “Love is the most powerful medicine. Meditate like Christ. He lost himself in love.”
Jason, this is who you really were and still are in your eternal state. You are a sweet, precious wave who returned to the ocean of eternal love. You understood that this love is who Jesus really is, and the miracle of in the Incarnation that we celebrate this Christmas season is that God shows up in human form. Not just in Jesus, in all of us. I am so sorry that the shame gremlins you could never quite shake kept you from knowing the fullness of this truth in your lifetime, as desperately as you sought this truth. When you told me this Fall that after all of these years you still experienced such great shame about being a gay man, I wanted to just wrap you up in Maharajji’s blanket and tell you how perfect and beautiful you are, exactly as God made you. I did my best to convey that with my voice and hope that in your eternal state, you now realize the truth. I see you and Maharajji hanging out together in Kainchi, chanting to Ram and sharing the love of God with everyone who comes to see you. Ram Dass is now there with you, I'm sure. After I visited Kainchi earlier this year, I so desperately wanted to take you to India with me some day and am sorry we will never have a chance to visit there together in this lifetime. Yet I smile when I see you there with Maharajji and our beloved Ram Dass now.
Because you are universal, unchanging, and timeless my sweet friend, I also hear you singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas with Judy Garland in stunning harmony, reaching me like a lullaby in these very difficult days. I promise you, Jason, that I will carry out your wish of making more music. I cherish the beautiful compliment I received when you said, “I’m glad you didn’t go to music school. They would have squashed out the natural organicity of your voice.” Maestro, I was and am truly honored that you regard my spirit so highly, and vow that I will never let anyone squash out this natural me that you loved so much. I promise that I will cherish these little moments of friendship, grace, and wonder in my life even more and never let my working drive override them again. I know you worried about my tendency to overwork and you, more than perhaps anyone, knew how hard it’s been for me to balance my public life and my private, inner world. You love/d Jamie, Dr. Jamie, and Pragya with equal force and in doing so you’ve laid a path for how I can better love all of me too. The other night when I talked to you in prayer, you told me to keep listening to Journey Blind, my song that you loved so much and that we had the chance to perform together.
And speaking of music and moments… that night in the church when we rehearsed Journey Blind in preparation for your show in February 2018; for me that memory rings on as the fusion of art, friendship and love. I’m so glad we were able to receive that on video (yay for Facebook Live and me being a champion networker). I adored that experience even more than us singing it at the show for it is the very essence of being in process, the glory of art as experience. May I create more moments like this with people in my life as long as I remain in this body. For if I were to die tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter how many books I wrote, how many courses I taught, how big my company got, or how many people knew my name… these moments, these Journey Blind rehearsals on a cold Wednesday night at a church in Warren, OH is what I would cherish the most. Thank you my sweet Jason, beloved member of my family of choice, for helping me to finally and fully realize it.
With love forever,
Speaking truth to power is not easy. I recently spoke out from the depths of my soul to a male public figure whose teaching style is—in my professional viewpoint—far from trauma-informed. I’ve listened to this teacher for quite some time as there has been enough good stuff to keep me engaged. Yet I reached a boiling point when some of his rhetoric crossed the line into what I assessed as victim blaming and making excuses for upholding abusive systems and power structures. To stay silent and passive would have been tantamount to tolerating abuse. With other female sexual assault survivors in the room, not speaking up seemed enabling.
Any previous interactions I had with this teacher attempting dialogue could be described as a barrage of interruptions and mansplaining as a response to my questions. On the day I finally spoke up with the fullness of my voice, I first asked to be listened to without being interrupted. When he nodded his head in agreement, I launched into my criticism, addressing trauma dynamics from a personal, professional, and spiritual perspective. After the very intense course session ended, many women approached me and remarked on my bravery and courage by speaking up in that way. One even called me heroic.
I appreciated them honoring me with their compliments and realized that giving voice to many of the things they also wanted to say may be the only good that came out of publicly challenging this man. Yet something bothered me—why do we still conceptualize it as brave for women to speak up to men? Especially when we are challenging their inaccuracies or blind spots in public discourse? Bravery suggests staring fear in the face when taking on a task that is new and radical. I long to live in a world where how I spoke up to a male is regarded as the norm, not as a groundbreaking act or heroic feat of courage.
How do we, as women, make this happen and continue a very necessary paradigm shift that the #MeToo movement and the work of other advocates began? To be proactive, it is not enough to look up to the outspoken women that we admire, especially those that have a public stage. We must also begin to make small changes at a micro level, in the theater of our daily lives, if significant change is to happen culturally.
A first step is to begin examining our speech on our day-to-day basis—are we speaking like we have something to apologize for? Are we constantly tentative, inflecting our sentence endings, making everything sound like a question? Do we insert nervous words and phrases such as like, you know, you know what I mean?, we’re gonna, okay, just wondering, but anyway excessively? Do these patterned ticks hamper the impact of what we need to say? Does sinking into a higher pitch feel comforting when we are uncertain? Do we say what we mean at the appropriate times, or are we constantly censoring ourselves?
Sure, holding the tongue may be appropriate in certain societal contexts, and speaking with kindness may be an important part of our value system. Yet what do we do with the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and words that we’re holding on to? Do we swallow them, allowing them to fester, playing out in the body or in a variety of other emotional distress symptoms? Or do we find another outlet at a more appropriate time to express them? And if we are constantly censoring our expression, especially in speech, what is the reason? Are we afraid of being perceived a certain way (e.g., disrespectful, unladylike, aggressive, bitchy)? Do we fear that others may withhold affection and regard from us if we speak up and claim the fullest expression of ourselves? Does the high, demure pitch seem to get us somewhere, especially with men? Men who we want to love us, admire us, respect us, or perhaps simply take us seriously?
I realize that I am asking many questions here and not providing any concrete answers. As a professional speaker, I’ve learned to constantly engage in self-inventory using these questions. At least once a year I make sure that I listen to a public recording of myself giving a talk and notice what I notice about my patterns of speech and expression. About five years ago, I was horrified to hear how much I used the phrase you know in a day-long course. The constant use of this nervous phrase made me seem less sure of myself and my message. I made a point to look out for it in future talks. I still have a tendency to slip into the you knows from time to time, and now I have the awareness that it’s typically a sign that I’m nervous or I’m doubting myself. To combat this issue, I make sure that I take more time to ground every morning before I face the day, especially if I’m teaching or giving a talk. I also make more spaces to deliberately breathe when I am speaking, as it keeps me in a calmer flow and less likely to sink into the uncertainty…which inevitably translates into my voice. Of course, the deeper work of therapy, other healing practices and setting boundaries in my life has also facilitated a greater sense of flow and strength in my speech.
As a writer, I’ve also noticed and actively addressed similar patterns. In 2012, I wrote the first edition of a book called Trauma and the Twelve Steps: A Complete Guide to Recovery Enhancement. A publisher contracted me to write a second edition to this work, which is due out in 2020. As I went back through the first edition of the book to make edits and conduct rewrites, I was shocked by how apologetic I sounded in so many places, and how many qualifying phrases that I used to cushion my points (e.g., “This is just my opinion,” “In my personal experience, etc.”) Even though my writing is known for its bridge-building quality, it seemed as though I played it too safe, afraid that I would piss people off. I believe there is an art to not tearing into people. After all, if I chew off their heads, metaphorically speaking, how will they have ears to hear me? Yet in this second run through the book, which also reflected an additional seven years of healing, recovery, and standing up for myself, I was able to take out so many of those qualifying phrases and simply present my position. The book is filled with my personal experience, opinions, clinical perspectives, and voice. There is no need for me to keep saying that in order to soften the power of my message. A second step that we can take as women is to give our emails and written communication a closer look before clicking send. The same questions I offer for speech can also offer us insight for the written word. You may find that practicing with writing is a good training ground for addressing speech.
The more I’ve deepened my awareness about these issues of presentation, the more difficult it is for me to listen to other women speak to each other. Even as I write this piece at an airport during my travels, I can hear two professionally dressed women talking to each other from the row of chairs behind me. Even in casual conversations with each other, the pitch is high, there is an overabundance of like and just to cushion what we are saying, and every sentence can sound like an apology for existing, like we are walking on egg shells. In being attuned to this throughout my travels, I notice it from women of all backgrounds. Sometimes it’s so painful I have to put my earphones on at the airport or on planes just so I don’t have to listen to it. And before I come across as a totally judgmental human being, I admit--I still catch myself doing it with my own girlfriends. These tendencies are that ingrained. These tentative, feminine tropes are how we have been socialized to communicate with each other and the world.
Personally, I’ve had enough, and I make a commitment to stop talking to myself, to my fellow sisters, to men, and to the world like I have something to be sorry for. I deserve to say the things I must say, and I can release expectations of how other people will receive me. I know that this commitment will be a work in progress and I will slip into old habits. When this happens, I will be compassionate with myself and recognize when my friends and I may just be lighthearted or joking with each other. Yet I will take it seriously if it feels like I’m apologizing for speaking or taking up space. If more of us are willing to commit to this at some level, I believe a day will come that speaking up to men in power like I did to that teacher will be just another thing we do because we know that we are worthy and we will be heard.
Photograph of Dr. Jamie by Brandy Llewelyn
Practicing Ahimsa in EMDR Therapy: Yoga Skills for EMDR Therapists by Anna Schott, MA, MSW, LISW-S, ERYT-200
“Violence is a reaction to fear - a key symptom of the dominance that egoism and ignorance have over mind. Violence is not defined by any destructive act but by the desire to see another harmed. That is why nonviolence includes refraining from harm in thought as well as deed...Perfecting nonviolence requires patience, courage, strength, faith, and deep understanding.”
- Inside the Yoga Sutras
“We spend our days badgered by voices that tell us to judge others, fear others, harm others, or harm ourselves. But we are not obligated to listen to those voices, or even to take responsibility for them. They may be where we come from, but they are not where we are going. There is another voice, a voice that shines. Ahimsa is the practice of listening to that voice of lightness, cultivating that voice, trusting that voice, acting upon that voice.”
- Rolf Gates, Meditations from the Mat
Practicing ahimsa, non-harming, is intrinsic to EMDR therapy and can be woven into the 8 phases of EMDR therapy as a tool to help clients re-regulate and treat themselves with loving kindness. Ahimsa is defined within the context of yoga as having respect for all living things and avoiding violence towards others and self. Ahimsa falls under the Yamas, or moral restraints, in the eight-limb path of yoga. Yoga includes not only the physical postures, but also mindfulness, mindful breathing, meditation, and a moral guide to use within the context of yoga and in life in general. The Yamas are part of this moral guide and are yoga’s self-regulating behaviors that teach us how to relate to others and take care of ourselves. Yoga, as a whole practice, aids in healing trauma and when used in conjunction with EMDR therapy, miraculous changes can occur.
Ahimsa does not just inform our work with clients but also how we take care of ourselves as therapists. In the clinical setting, we practice Ahimsa in the words and actions we use with our clients to create a trauma-sensitive setting. We also counteract the effects of our own countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burnout as we take a non-harming approach with ourselves. The whole framework and modality of EMDR therapy embodies Ahimsa as we help our clients heal from trauma and cultivate a peaceful therapeutic setting.
Practicing Ahimsa in phase 1 of EMDR therapy influences the process of history taking with our clients. As clinicians, we must be mindful of how we conduct a mental health assessment and talk to our clients about their past to avoid retraumatization through asking about unnecessary details in regards to their traumas. Because of the fragmented nature of how trauma memories are stored, clients may not be able to identify an accurate timeline, or when they do start recounting specific memories, the proverbial can of worms opens and clients become flooded with trauma memories. We can avoid this by slowly exploring clients’ histories and not worrying about getting the exact historical details. We must remember what matters in history taking is the client’s perspective of their experiences and how they’ve integrated these memories into their view of themselves. Because of the triggering nature of our clients’ pasts, we may need to wait to obtain a full history (and this may not ever come to full fruition) and allow the conversation to be client directed. Though there are certain nuggets of information necessary to obtain to form a diagnosis and identify a treatment plan, it is more important for the wellbeing of our clients to practice Ahimsa by not asking for too much information too fast.
As we move into phase 2 of EMDR therapy, we can work with our clients to identify resources they can utilize throughout the therapeutic process and which embodies a way to direct our clients to practice Ahimsa. This can start as early as the first session as we explore the resources clients already have in place and can utilize in therapy. Exploring resources in addition to history taking can help counteract possible retraumatization in phase 1. The main purpose of resourcing is to help clients tolerate processing the traumas identified during history taking. During this phase of treatment, we can teach our clients coping skills and resources that will help them stay in their window of tolerance without self injury in thought or deed. Through guided visualizations of the Light Stream, the Calm Safe Place, and the Container Exercise installed with BLS, we strengthen our clients’ internal resources to enhance Ahimsa. As a further way to practice Ahimsa, we can also offer to install other individualized positive resources with bilateral stimulation, such as positive experiences, relationships, and achievements.
In phases 3-6 in EMDR therapy, we help clients practice Ahimsa by identifying targets to process and then engaging in bilateral stimulation to desensitize the memories and reprocess the associated negative beliefs. These beliefs perpetuate internal self-injury in the messages clients tell themselves and external self-injury in the form of harmful coping mechanisms, drug and alcohol abuse, and even cutting. Flooding and abreactions can occur during processing with clients who are extremely traumatized, pushing them outside their window of tolerance. Though we want to keep pushing forward to help clients move through these memories, we must practice Ahimsa to help them stay within the space of being comfortably uncomfortable. This can occur by drawing upon their previously installed positive resources, utilizing different cognitive interweaves, and knowing when to slow the processing train down. It also involves an understanding of when to integrate modifications into phases 3-6, such as having a client open their eyes during processing, integrating grounding techniques in between sets, and utilizing the container when clients are flooded by memories. By desensitizing these target memories, our clients practice Ahimsa by living peacefully in the present instead of through the lens of past traumas.
Traditionally, in the practice of Ahimsa, we tend to think of non-harming in the physical sense. This is certainly a reality for many of our clients who engage in physical self-harm through cutting, drug and alcohol addiction, and eating disorders. However, self-harm can present as an internal self-injury through negative self-talk. As clients desensitize their traumatic memories, the associated negative cognitions reprocess, allowing for the integration of positive cognitions, which is then installed with bilateral stimulation. This allows clients to let go of negative cognitions that do not serve them and minimizes negative self-talk and coincidental internal self-injury. Through this, our clients are actively practicing Ahimsa by listening to their positive internal voice.
A further practice of physical non-harming occurs in the body scan phase in EMDR therapy. We ask our clients to scan their body and notice any disturbances while thinking about the target memory and positive cognition. Any residual disturbances they may report can be lingering somatic experiences of the traumatic memories, and reprocessing these can lead to further healing. Though this phase of EMDR therapy may seem extraneous, it allows for some of the deepest processing due to trauma memories being stored at a very base body level. It is often the very last fibrous roots of trauma memories that need to be weeded out. The body scan offers an in-depth way to heal physically from the traumas, leading to a continued state of peace and calm in which to continue practicing Ahimsa.
EMDR therapy is based on the three pronged model of addressing and reprocessing past, present, and future targets to help clients reach optimal functioning. Reprocessing past and present targets offers a way for clients to heal. Installing a future template lays the groundwork for an ongoing mindset of practicing Ahimsa. By visualizing positive ways to handle related situations, clients automatically create an internal positive environment to respond to new and different situations. This is also a way to carry their installed positive cognitions into future scenarios to which they will respond. This will help them to strengthen their practice of Ahimsa as they continue to install and strengthen their positive cognitions and strengths.
As EMDR therapists, we hear trauma all day long. Reprocessing these memories leads to so much healing for our clients but can take a toll on us as therapists through countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burnout. It is imperative as clinicians to practice Ahimsa ourselves. This may manifest as taking a mental health day, limiting the number of clients seen back to back, making sure to take a quick break in between sessions to eat, drink water, and to answer the call of nature. It should also include a rigorous self-care routine outside of work in which you engage in activities that ground and replenish you. In sessions, staying grounded and mindful while practicing Ahimsa will help you to stay present with your clients without absorbing all of the emotions and energies they are outputting as they process their own trauma. Having a self-practice of Ahimsa will enhance your abilities as a clinician and assist in staying engaged with your clients.
Practicing Ahimsa guides us in living in a peaceful way within ourselves and within the world. Not only does non-harming refer to refraining from physically and verbally hurting someone else, it also applies to how we treat and speak to ourselves. As EMDR clinicians, we are teaching our clients to practice non-harming through reprocessing their traumas in the 8 phases and installing positive cognitions that inform how they live their lives moving forward. Through Ahimsa we discover the light within ourselves that directs us in our lives.
To Write or Not to Write: Utilizing the Future Template to Manifest Our Dreams by Anna Schott, LISW-S
I know I’m not the only one grappling with transitioning from full time therapist to other professional pursuits, such as consultation, training, writing, etc. I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends and colleagues about this very topic and our woes are very similar: there are too many clients to see, too many family obligations to juggle, not enough time in the day, etc. I don’t have the answer, but I figured the more I share my intentions for this transition, the more likely it is to manifest (and please feel free to share any ideas you may have in the comments section below!).
I feel an internal drive to grow professionally by developing trainings and writing, but this conflicts with my present obligations. As I think of all the challenges I face in making this transition, the biggest one is the overall feeling of guilt. I have a full caseload of clients, and they need to see me. If I schedule time out of my workday, which I have tried to do with little success, I feel like I’m not doing enough for my clients by not seeing them as often as needed or not taking on new clients. About three months ago, I blocked off Fridays on my schedule to dedicate time to manifesting my goals; ask me how many Fridays I haven’t seen clients, and the answer would be not very many. If I try to set aside time at home in the evenings or weekends, I wrestle with the guilt of not doing enough for my kids and family. If I tell them to leave me alone for an hour...well, it’s just not feasible. I get one or both of the kids looking of my shoulder, asking me what I’m doing and am I done yet - that was my night last night. Again, it brings up the feelings of guilt and the belief “I’m not doing enough”.
We do have this amazing ability as EMDR therapists to process through blocks that keep us from realizing our greatest potential. We can come up with every excuse in the book not to take steps forward, but at the end of the day, we have to push out of our comfort zones and address the fact that we are scared our greatest fear will be realized and reinforce the negative beliefs of “I’m not good enough”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m not doing enough”, etc. By using the three-pronged model, we can identify and reprocess the origins of our negative beliefs, reprocess any current triggers, and install a future template to help us push through to achieve our goals. Installing a future template is often a part of EMDR therapy that is overlooked and minimized, but it can be extremely transformative. By being able to visualize an image of how you want to handle situations in the future, such as writing a book or conducting a training, with a positive cognition, such as “I am good enough” or “I am successful” can open us to manifesting these positive visualizations. It allows us to have a firm grasp on what we want in our future moving forward and gives us the momentum to take the first tentative steps.
This feels like one of those leap of faith moments, and I have to remember that I’ve been here before. I took a leap of faith when I went into private practice after working at a nonprofit with salary, benefits, vacation time, and a sense of stability. Though working at the agency was beneficial in many different ways, I outgrew it and knew I had to let go of that old familiar sense of safety to venture out to start my own holistic private practice. It’s the same driving feeling now as before - this is just something I have to do in order to be true to my authentic self. When I went through that transition before, I had to trust my instincts that this is the right move and remember that new opportunities won’t present themselves if I’m still holding on to old stuff. I have to take my own advice, let go of the old to embrace the new. This is my promise that I make to myself, to be intentional about my goals and not waver in the face the fear, and I hope you make this same promise to yourself. We counsel our clients to trust the process and learn to let go. Now it’s our turn.
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.