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.
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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.