“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
Originally published on the Dancing Mindfulness Expressive Arts Therapy Blog, 5/4/2017
If you’ve followed Dancing Mindfulness and other projects connected to my Institute for Creative Mindfulness work, you’ve likely encountered the hashtag #redefinetherapy. What started as a book chapter and a hashtag is quickly turning into a movement that you may feel the call to embrace. I owe credit to Emily Wichland, the editor of my 2015 book Dancing Mindfulness: A Creative Path to Healing & Transformation for articulating the challenge to redefine therapy. In my first draft of Dancing Mindfulness, I structured the closing chapter around my experience of feeling more excited by practices that are happening outside of the bounds of conventional psychotherapy. To excerpt:
Formal psychotherapy has played a great role in my healing process and I respect the practice of counseling and therapy. Additionally, I am proud of what I’ve been able to achieve as a counselor in helping others. However, the overall direction of where my field is going does not excite me as much as the healing wonders I witness when people organically connect with their own creativity. I see many gifted professionals in psychotherapy stifled in their creativity and intuition by the rigid institutions that they work for or the insurance companies they fear, imposing unrealistic medical standards of care on their work. In sum, there is only so much that traditional therapy can do for people in the modern era because of the flaws in our healthcare system. What really excites me is what’s happening in healing communities across the globe. When I see people realize that healing and wellness are not synonymous with the broken systems that so many turn to in order to heal, my heart and soul smile.
When Emily returned the chapter edits to me, she suggested that I title the chapter Redefining Therapy. When I read this, my heart leaped into my stomach and then back again. I was excited—my immediate response was “Yes!” This notion of redefining therapy is what I see so many of our clinicians drawn to the Dancing Mindfulness community practicing in their lives. However, part of that visceral response also included a sense of terror. I asked myself, “Can I really be so bold, especially when many people in my field already resent those like me, challenging the value and the relevance of traditional psychotherapy taught in halls of academia?” By mindfully embracing these remnants of fear, I eventually arrived at the conclusion that naming the final chapter Redefining Therapy was an act of brilliance. The phrase represents everything that my work is about; it represents the sense of excitement I see percolate from the beautiful individuals I train when they are given permission to practice their healing arts outside of a rigid box.
As part of promoting the book’s release, Holly Speenburgh, a member of our Dancing Mindfulness community who was helping me with marketing at the time, began using the hashtag #redefinetherapy. For people in our community, it came to represent a way of doing things that might make your university counseling professors’ heads spin with frustration. Yet for us, it signifies the call for therapists to be inspired by what is happening outside of the literal boxes of our clinical offices and to bring some of this inspiration into how we teach our clients to heal. Redefine therapy also challenges potential consumers of mental health services to consider that conventional psychotherapy or psychiatry may not signal the only hope for treatment and recovery. Perhaps yoga or dance or raising your animals have cultivated a greater sense of safety in your own body than engaging in therapy ever has. Maybe martial arts or fly-fishing or backpacking through Europe or becoming an advocate in your community for change have helped you to experience a greater sense of empowerment than you have ever known. Like with many people I know both personally and professionally, it’s very likely that a combination of factors—which may or may not include psychotherapy—have led to your recovery and renewal.
While it may seem like common sense to embrace this all of the above approach to healing, please understand that I still encounter a great deal of resistance from other therapists and academics about embracing the wide range of human experience as potential outlets for transformation. Maybe these colleagues are afraid that highlighting the importance of other healing practices and communities of connection will delegitimize what we do as therapists and make our work seem less relevant. Perhaps the resistance is born of a good old fashioned fear of what we do not understand. Another possibility is a fear of deeply engaging the body and its power as a vehicle for change, deferring instead to the familiarity of the talking cure in therapy. While I am not opposed to talking or verbal methods in the overall healing process, I’ve seen too many people use words only to avoid and to deflect. In many of these situations, deeper healing must take place in our emotional and somatic brains that words cannot directly reach. The journey into our emotional and bodily selves is difficult in our culture where we are constantly bombarded with messages that feelings cannot be trusted and feeling them makes us weak. The media and many of the tastemakers in our society shame us for having bodies that do not meet some perfect standard of what bodies should be. Additionally, the impact of religious messaging and shame-based interpretations of religious teachings leave many to doubt the wisdom inherent in their bodies.
The time is now to speak up about what has helped you to reach your desires in healing and recovery. It’s 2017 and I am still fighting licensing boards and continuing education standards committees in certain states about the relevance of yoga, mindfulness, and expressive arts in the practice of professional therapy. A limitation for what works in healing and recovery still permeates many of the institutions that shape research, policy, and clinical practice guidelines. Moreover, the age-old axiom this is the way we’ve always done it, often invoked to honor tradition in many clinical and academic settings, seems to be hampering progress in an era where we need fresh solutions. Addiction is killing us in epic proportions, old trauma scripts are being triggered by current events and the state of the world, and people are feeling a greater sense of despair as we begin to wake up from our comas of oppression and realize that who we are matters. Showing up for life is hard work. As therapists, are we using all possible strategies for helping clients to embrace the challenge? As potential consumers of mental health and recovery services, what problems might we have with conventional psychotherapy and what have we discovered that may work better instead?
My challenge is that we begin having these conversations with greater vigor. What does redefining therapy mean to you? What has really helped you to embrace healing and recovery, either inside or outside of traditional structures of psychotherapy and treatment? Maybe it’s been one primary practice, maybe it’s been an all-of-the-above approach. My vision long term is to use this blog to hold space for people to share about what redefining therapy means to them and how they have put a wide array of healing practices into their lives. If it’s psychotherapy, I want to hear about what worked in it for you. If it’s Muay Thai kickboxing or aerial yoga or climbing mountains or volunteering at the soup kitchen or becoming a minister in the Church of the Dude, I want to hear about that, too. Feel free to submit your reflections and stories to me and I will be happy to publish them with your permission. Long term, my goal is to be able to publish an entire book called Redefining Therapy where we are not afraid to speak about what has truly worked for us and to continue to shatter the paradigm for what brings about change, healing, and recovery.
Photography by Natalie Mancino Grilli, June 2015, as part of the Body Diversity Aerial Yoga Project
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.