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.
“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
“Jamie, when we first met, you brought up all of my popular girl issues and I didn’t know how to act around you.”
My mouth was agape when Ramona, a member of the Dancing Mindfulness community and now a senior affiliate trainer in our program, revealed this to me several years ago. While I didn’t wish to negate her experience, there was a part of me that wanted to rage back, “But you don’t understand! I’m anything but a popular girl. After all, the popular girls in school gave me a complex that’s taken years of therapy to repair!”
The images of that chubby girl with a bad perm being teased and set up on the Catholic school playground in elementary school came flooding back. The panic I experienced in junior high that I would never be “liked” in that way by a boy or a girl rose up in my chest. The despair in which I found myself as a competitor in high school speech because I never felt pretty enough, talented enough, or likable enough to win the top prizes came into the clearest view. Then I realized—even as an accomplished professional with a public image, I still let the kids I perceive as more popular affect me. And it turns out that many of us still do, long into adulthood.
There’s a great deal of talk about impostor syndrome in pop psychology literature and on social media—the fear that one day people are going to expose us as the frauds that we are and realize that we’re full of shit and have no business to be working in our fields. What I am putting out there for consideration is related and yet essentially different—the popular kid complex. This is the fear that no matter how hard we try, how great we look or how talented we are, we’ll never be invited to sit with the popular kids at their lunch table. While we can argue that in an ideal, spiritually enlightened world there ought to be no such thing as lunch tables and that external metrics of this nature shouldn’t matter, we do live in that world. And no matter how hard we work on ourselves or how deeply we invest in our spiritual practices, things like this can still matter even to the steadiest among us.
This idea may feel like just another variation on the keeping up with the Joneses concept, always wanting more out of a sense of competition. To explain how I see the popular kid complex as fundamentally different and even bigger problem, I’m going to call myself out on my own shit. Many years ago, I set out on the path of my teaching career as an extension of service and continuing to live in the eleventh step as described in a 12-step program—to pray for knowledge of my Higher Power’s will and the power to carry it out. At first I was simply over the moon that people wanted to book me for trainings and read some of my articles. The more I kept putting myself out there, I gratefully received more teaching invitations and my first book contract in 2011, primarily to write for other therapists.
Then at some point, I found myself getting intimated and maybe even a little jealous by the likes of Brené Brown, Gabrielle Bernstein, and Anne Lamott. They are popular! They are on the New York Times best seller list! They have a reach beyond just their niche market. Oprah invites them onto Super Soul Sunday, the ultimate cool kids lunch table for modern times. Here’s the kicker—I like their stuff, I adore their teachings. They put themselves out there the way that I would like to, and what still stops me short is this fear that I will never be as pretty, whimsical, charming, likable, talented, relatable, or popular as they are. I am even prone to thinking thoughts like, “Why does the world need teachers like me when they have teachers like them?”
Fortunately those thoughts come and go, as I know at my core that what I do in my work is a direct fruit of me asking my Higher Power and the universe to make me a vessel, in whatever form that may take. But as much as that spiritual perspective keeps me grounded, I am still human. My meat suit and all its programming can get the best of me. In the language of recovery, I can still get in my own way.
Sometime last year I looked at jealousy—is it that I’m just jealous of people who are better than me and can get things done where I can’t? The teachings of the Kripalu-Amrit lineage in which I study yoga helped me through that one. I accepted that jealousy is a fear that, at my core, I am not enough. Jealousy is about being cut off from the reality of my true Self and my true nature where none of us are separate. Spiritual me gets that. Human me still struggles.
I was recently doing some of my own EMDR therapy on this matter and the Brené Brown brings up my popular girl issues and I’ll never be likable enough to get a Netflix special was tripped-wired. The therapist working on me said “go with that” and I immediately blurted out, “Brené Brown is my Marla Carano.”
Marla Carano was the best speaker in the Ohio region where I competed my senior year of high school. Tall, articulate and charming, she looked about ten years older than the rest of us, wearing a stylish olive green suit for major competitions. She went to one of the powerhouse suburban high schools where her father was the legendary head coach. As a kid from a city school with a small team, I believed I could never be as cool as her. To be clear, she won on her talent. Also to be clear, Marla was always a gracious competitor and genuinely nice to me. I never felt anything like a “mean girl” vibe coming from her. Yet I could never shake the fact that I would perpetually be second or third next to the likes of her because I wasn’t as pretty, whimsical, charming, likable, talented, relatable, or popular as she.
And the reality is, in what has since become the classic Dr. Jamie Marich move that has defined my adult career, I wrote a pretty avant-garde original oratory for high school speech tournaments. My speech created conversations with other students and even other judges even if I didn’t necessarily win top prizes. The move I made that year to put my voice out there is the gutsiness that I celebrate and applaud in my own students. That move, I believe, made me the speaker I am today whose primarily livelihood is literally forged on my ability to go up there and speak truth without fear.
So why isn’t that enough? At seventeen, one could say I was still in high school and having a place in the spotlight matters. But I’m nearly forty. Why can I feel, especially within myself, that life is still a damn speech and debate competition? Maybe it is. After all, I’m still vying with others to win teaching contracts, spots as a keynote, deals with publishers. The cynical and yes, human, side of me knows that there will always be an element of competitiveness to life. As I continued to “go with it” in my own EMDR session that day the larger, spiritual truth filled my heart—teaching and being public in my field must never be a competition.
Our purpose as healers is to alleviate human suffering, bringing one of Buddha’s noble truths into beautiful fruition in this world. This task takes all kinds of people—those who have mass appeal and those who have niche appeal—and all types of talent. Working the front lines of community care in places like correctional facilities, treatment centers, and poorly funded public mental health facilities requires talent and commitment. People who will never give a training or write a book have a different yet wholly essential talents that I do not. This is where the heart of our work is happening and when I get into crazy places with my own ego, I must remember this truth.
In preparing to write this piece, I reached out to Marla Carano Honen, as we’ve been in touch on Facebook through the years. I wanted to make sure she was okay with me putting an article out there in which she is my nemesis of sorts. Marla is anything but a villain; she has helped me to see a higher truth. And in speaking with her about the premise of the popular kid complex—guess what? It affects her too! I firmly believe we are all that “popular kid” to someone who brings up their issues, and all of us have popular kids who bring up stuff that as adults we must learn to heal and to manage.
I also had the chance to spend some time on a retreat (Ram Das: Spring on Maui) with one of my legendary popular kids, Anne Lamott. And guess what? Anne has struggled with the perils of comparison and can still face her own share of dark thoughts. What I learned from her so robustly on retreat is that she continues to put one foot in front of another by working a 12-step program and reaching out to safe people with whom she can be honest. And in a story I ended up sharing with her, Anne helped me to sink into much of the solution.
After sitting through another beautifully folksy talk by Anne in her awkward loveliness, I walked to the back of the pavilion to get some tea. I thought to myself, “Jamie, even though you are getting more public with your work you will never be as likable as that.” And literally in the next breath a lovely young yogi comes up to me and says, “I like watching you dance at the kirtan. It’s so inspiring!”
Okay, I’m human enough to admit that part of my thinking went to, “Wow, a perfect looking young yogini likes the way I dance, I matter... I am valid! Roll credits.” Fortunately the spiritual truths of what I’ve been learning and studying kicked in and gave me the real lesson: When I dance, I am my most authentic self. I dance absent any kind of technical prowess. Dancing and responding mindfully to the music is the purest experience of being a vessel for Divine energy to flow. That doesn’t make me popular, and yet it does something much more magical. It attracts the people who need to feel it too so that hopefully they will be inspired to open up and be their unique expression of Divine flow.
And hmmm... doesn't this sound like something Brené Brown would teach in her groundbreaking work around vulnerability? Turns outI just had to work on my edge around her to fully open myself up to the teaching. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you Brené and all of my other popular kids for allowing me to "go there" and receive your wisdom.
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.