Even though I do my best to take off the clinical cap outside of session, friends often ask for my opinion about all things mental health. When a friend recently talked about their long-term struggles with anxiety, I mounted my usual soapbox about the importance of feeling your feelings fully and not stuffing them away. As a trauma-focused therapist and a yogi, I believe that most of the symptoms that trouble us are the result of unhealed emotional wounds that never got a chance to heal at earlier points in our lives. Until we permit ourselves to feel what we weren’t able, willing, or allowed to feel at these earlier points, we’ll remain in a loop of distress that manifests in a variety of symptoms.
“But I thought the point was not to engage my feelings? To not let them get the best of me?,” my friend replied.
My eyes rolled and my fury rose, knowing that they heard this from either a cognitively driven therapist or a psychiatrist. And in the spirit of feeling my feelings through, I am not afraid to disclose that I get incredibly angry when I hear that feelings phobia is alive and well among mental health providers. Once, a student reported to me that his psychiatric medical director was so nervous about clients not being able to handle feelings, she forbade any treatments at their clinic that might make patients cry. Even as I type this, I feel the Hulk rising up in my chest about to bust out, so infuriated that providers—either due to their own fear or restrictions that systemic forces placed upon them—are deliberately keeping people stuck in a rut when they offer such direction.
The major lesson that I have learned from people I’ve served in the last fifteen years as a trauma specialist is that our feelings are not the problem. Everything we do to keep from feeling our feelings and experiencing our emotions—even the dark and heavy ones—is the real problem. We engage in addictive behaviors, we isolate and cut off connection, and we begin to accept phenomenon like panic attacks, nervousness, persistent body distress, and dissociative numbing as the norm. As my friend Esther describes it, “I’ve parked diagonally in the depressive position as the lesser of evils for most of my life.” While I am not opposed to psychiatric medication that is responsibly prescribed within a larger context of care, I get concerned when people become so fixated on getting their medication type(s) and dosage just right. We believe that finding this medical solution will help us to survive the rigors of daily living, and for a time, it might. There are even some conditions and organic brain structures where psychiatric medication may even be necessary for survival.
But are we only meant to survive?
Or by refusing to listen to what our feelings, experiences, and sensations have to share with us about what needs healed, are we cutting ourselves off from the deepest well of healing that is available to us?
My answer to this question is obviously yes, and it may seem like that resounding affirmation comes from a place of tremendous privilege. True, I have extensive training in both EMDR therapy and classical yoga. I’ve invested a great deal of my own money in my therapeutic process and have gotten to a place where if I feel an emotional wave coming over me as I drive down I-80, I’m not afraid to cry until it passes. I take Rumi’s teaching in The Guesthouse to heart by welcoming and entertaining them all—the joys, the sorrows, and the meanness.
I also know how to put such waves of feeling into what therapists sometimes call a container, a visual or sensory strategy we can work on to hold the full expression of the feeling until the time and place is more appropriate. If I am still crying when I arrive at my worksite, I know how to use my container to keep it together in order to get through the day. Yet because I ride the waves as they come, I usually don’t need to use the container. The feeling will pass and I can get on with my day. If the same feeling keeps coming up as a pattern, I know to take it to my therapist, sponsor, spiritual teachers or friends, and they help me identify where I need to do the work. And as a woman in long-term recovery, I’ve had over seventeen years of practice in cultivating this art.
That is my privilege—yet remember, there was lots of stuff I needed to heal from in the first place! So many of my early childhood memories center around being made to feel weird because I felt things so intensely. I am the girl who cried for days when the bad people painted Big Bird blue in the 1985 Sesame Street film, Follow That Bird. I am the girl who was constantly told that she was too sensitive, whose caretakers didn’t really know how to handle her. I am also the girl who knew that if I expressed what I felt about many of the happenings of my childhood, my safety would be threatened. I still experienced emotions like fear, anger, disgust, and shame about the things going on around me over which I had no control. They just had nowhere to go or no healthy outlet through which to be expressed. So, I turned inward, first with eating. The arts eventually gave me an outlet that served as a bit of a release valve, yet when my perfectionistic tendencies shut those down in my life, drugs and alcohol became the natural way to temper my tendencies to feel things so damn hard. Fortunately, my recovery path led me back to the expressive arts as a healthy outlet for expression. And I can now embrace my sensitivity as a character asset. Yet getting to this place required time spent in healing practices and learning to remove the scripts of judgment around my feelings.
My clients, friends, and my own lived experience have also taught me a great deal about what makes it so commonplace to block the feeling and expression of even the most natural of emotions. The greatest hits of reasons include fear that I won’t be able to handle what comes up, fear of being judged, fear that I’m a bad person for feeling what I do, fear of being rejected, fear that they will never go away and so they’ll end up destroying me, fear of hurting others, fear of people taking advantage of my vulnerability, fear of doing the hard work, fear that no one will understand or get me, fear that my sense of safety or connection to people I love will be taken away, fear of being seen, fear of making real changes in my life…. With all of these fears, of course medicating alone seems appealing!
Consider, however, that these fears do not develop in a vacuum. We generally learn them from somewhere—from our families of origin, from society, from the systems in which we are educated and eventually go to work. For many of us, it’s literally the “systems,” like foster care, incarceration, and yes, the medical and mental health fields, that can teach us these horrid lessons. No wonder that so many of us are afraid to feel when people in positions of power, even people who we are told are there to help us, can literally be the source of our feelings phobia.
I’m not here to analyze whether your parents, guardians, teachers, or care providers had malicious intent when they first told you, “Don’t cry.” I do ask you to consider how this and other messages around feelings and emotions shaped your early experiences. A common thread for many of us is that some of our earliest wounding was also paired with damaging messages about what it means to express feelings, let alone have them. So whether, as a young man, you were taught that boys don’t cry, or whether you learned that crying only got you into more trouble, regardless of your gender expression, these source messages must be explored if it is your intention to overcome feelings phobia.
When I worked in addiction treatment, I offered this rather crude metaphor. Consider that trying to stop yourself from feeling your feelings is as futile as trying to stop the flow of a river, the waves of the ocean, or yes—as futile as trying to stop yourself from doing your business when your body signals that it’s time to find a toilet. Or at least somewhere to let it out, even if it’s a roadside bush or a makeshift litter box (which I once had to create on an overnight bus through India where no toilet was to be found on board). All whimsy aside, think about the last time you had to “go to the bathroom.” What if you were told, or even told yourself, I have to hold it in—indefinitely! Consider the level of pain and distress that would ensue, and how eventually what needs to come out will come out in an even messier, uncontained way.
As gross as it sounds, this is what we do when we do not allow ourselves the proper outlet to feel through our feelings, an experience of human living that is as natural as needing to do this physical business. Bringing this metaphor full circle, consider how most of us were toilet trained to be able to take care of this physical business in a safe and sanitary way. And yet most of us never received the same level of patient training and instruction about the naturalness of feelings and how to express them healthfully. So, show yourselves some compassion as you identify what’s kept you stuck and learn a new way of being in the world. Be kind to yourself. It may feel like you’re in toilet training all over again. Seek professional help with a provider who seems willing to do the deep digging with you in a supportive context. It’s not ridiculous to do a phone screen with a potential provider and ask them what their stance is on feelings and how they work with them in clinical practice. You can also turn to your friends and people in your life who relate to the struggle. In my experience, the daunting prospect of letting ourselves go there can feel less scary when someone can validate and affirm, yet also have the willingness to challenge us appropriately.
Every time you let yourself feel a feeling is a victory in this healing process or experiencing the world, not just surviving it.
It’s all training ground.
The study of subjectivity is broadly concerned with what it means to be an experiencing subject in the world. When I touch the book, “I” am the subject doing unto an object, namely “the book.” This subjective “I” touches the book, reads the book, has the book fall on her head, absorbs the ideas in the book, discusses them with another human being. So, when studying subjectivity, we ask questions about who I am, how I experience the world, and what gives me meaning as a being in the world. It invites us to think about the way in which we relate to the world around us and how we understand our place in it.
There is a long tradition of western philosophy that talks about how we can never really know the things external to us. Sure, I may touch the book, but my sense perception filtered through my brain is all I really have access to. I could be living in the Matrix and the book may not even be real. The outside world is of course experienced, but in some ways, it is always a bit of a mystery. This tradition presupposes that subjects and objects are fundamentally distinct – that I can never know the “truth” of the external world. They suggest that the subject, that I, am reducible to my brain’s processing power of figuring out the external world.
This has always struck me a very disconnected an unsatisfying way to look at my place in the world. The few memories I do have of my childhood are characterized by that feeling of disconnectedness and inability to make contact with the “external world.” Like many, my adolescence was characterized by a chronic striving to “fit in” with the popular kids, with the ever-present anxiety that accompanied a lack of knowing what they really thought about me. Even now, I have very few memories of my childhood before the age of fourteen, which incidentally coincides with the age at which I discovered the ability of alcohol and drugs to manufacture a sense of connectedness to the world – a pastime which would temporarily cure that sense of longing, but ultimately exacerbate the feelings of disconnect and loneliness. Even as an adult I have few belongings that suggest I even existed more than a few years ago. And so, with a lack of history in terms of geographic location, memory and material possessions, save for the ephemeral sense of disconnect from the world around me, I stumbled into this philosophical tradition that reified every negative cognition and somatic discomfort about my lack of fitting into this world.
But there’s another way to think about our place in the world. Maybe we aren’t just minds functioning as detached observers. Part of what it means to be human is to have experiences in the world. To both contribute to shaping the world and to be shaped by it. To bring an amalgamation of life experiences to bear in our interactions with it. Everything we know, we know from a place that has been informed by a geographic, historic, and cultural context that we bring to the table when making sense of a situation or experience. Such an approach to understanding the subject or self means that we are fundamentally evolving, unfolding and growing with each encounter in the world. We are part of the world, connected intimately to it, and it is part of us.
So, what does this mean for the kid with no memories and a chronic sense of isolation from the world? What has it meant for the girl from nowhere? It means the way I understood myself has shifted over time away from the desire to figure out what others think of me and how I can access the inaccessible. Treating the world like an object to be figured out or analyzed as means to manufacturing a sense of connection with it, somehow only puts greater distance there. But in embracing my own unfolding story and honoring oneself as an evolving, growing, and emerging creature responding to the world around her, rather than trying to figure it out, has paradoxically resulted in a deeper sense of connection and intimacy in relationships and with the world at large. The ironic twist here, is that in my experience when I let go of striving to figure it all out and instead am mindful of my own experiences and responses to the world, I actually somehow become part of it rather than a detached observer.
Moreover, if in every interaction with the world I bring with me a history of experiences that help me to make sense of those interactions, then I also bring those experiences with me as I look back at my past. This means I get to look back at a childhood and adolescence that I don’t fully comprehend, that is missing large pieces, and characterized by a sense of not belonging with the wisdom of experiences and memories acquired later in life. For the girl from nowhere, understanding myself in hindsight with the full weight of the experiences I do have, means I get to weave together a new story and claim that history for myself – to rewrite my own narrative.
There is one last important consequence that results from understanding subjectivity as evolving in response to a world with which we are intimately related and in communion. An intimate connection with and sense of belonging to requires responsibility. If we are connected with the world and therefore one another, we are responsible for both validating one another’s unique experiences and histories and challenging one another to continue to grow and evolve. It is not enough to simply honor from whence we’ve come. Comfort with self, community and other, means we must continue to submit to new experiences that challenge us to discard old ideas that are no longer productive and avoid becoming stagnant.
Understanding subjectivity as the embrace of one’s unfolding story in response to the world about her sounds lovely. yet even as I write this, I am keenly aware that I don’t always live in this space of communion with the world. I would be lying if I said I never gave a damn about what you thought about me, or how even this piece of writing might be received. I want you to like it. I hope you do. But it’s not something I can figure out how to make happen. Even with the full recognition that my striving only feeds my discomfort, I readily admit I still fall into these patterns, defaulting to my analytic brain. I have a choice today about how I want to engage the world, and it’s not always an easy one as I slip into old ways of thinking. So if you see me on the street, feel free to remind me that my own history, experiences, and insights are worth honoring or perhaps need challenged so that I might continue to grow and feel a little more comfortable in this world, and I’ll try to do the same for you.
If there was a category in my high school yearbook for “Most Likely to Become a Junkie,” I would not have been a contender. Indeed, I was voted “Class Brain.” And none of my smarts could prevent me from developing an addiction problem on top of an already budding mental illness. I spent the Fall of 2000 in a state of suicidal use, not caring whether I’d ever wake up. Even as I tried to get sober and well shortly after turning 21, I didn’t think I’d make it past 24.
These period of days from July 4-July 8 are quite celebratory. Most everyone in the U.S. is in a festive place on July 4th, my belly button birthday is July 6th, and my sobriety anniversary is July 8th. This year I turn 40, a momentous occasion for me who once believed I couldn’t ever survive this long. And I celebrate 17 years of sobriety. At the start of these special days, my spirit was somewhat dampened when I saw a friend post a “joke” from a parody account set up to represent an Ohio municipality. The post apologized to members of the city for having a scaled-back fireworks display this year, due to the fact that they’ve spent so much money on Narcan. And they “thanked the junkies” for ruining everyone’s freedom celebration.
I have a very crude sense of humor and I am not a person who easily offends. And this “joke” infuriates me in a way I struggle to put into words. Whenever you talk shit about alcoholics or addicts due to your own ignorance, misinformation, resentments, or unhealed wounds, you are also talking shit about me and scores of people that I love. There are many others who would look at me and the life I’ve built today and say, “But Jamie, you’re different.”
I’m really not.
Yes, I am successful by every conventional American definition of the word.
That’s because recovery defines my lifestyle today.
And it began in a place where I was just as desperate as any other “junkie” who may need revived in the back of an ambulance.
People who meet me now or only knew a very public version of me as a child can have difficulty attuning to this reality. A few years ago after marriage equality became the law of the land, I attended my first same-sex wedding in my hometown. The ceremony was beautiful. I cried through most of it, not ever believing I would see this in my lifetime. And my illusions of liberal paradise were short-lived. I was seated randomly with one of the groom’s family members. He came around at the beginning of the reception and introduced me, “Dr. Jamie Marich,” to everyone at the table. He gushed about how accomplished I was, that I was an author, and everyone at the table seemed impressed.
Towards the end of the meal, the opiate crisis came up as a topic of conversation. One of the family members stated quite bluntly what a travesty it was that we wasted so much money on Narcan, especially for frequent fliers.
“They should just let the junkies die already.”
Of course this was not the first time I’d heard talk like this. A few years prior at an extended family event, I heard someone opining that the government should euthanize people who fail treatment after three tries. And yet this was at a gay wedding, where most in attendance seemed to be tolerant.
My stomach churned, unable to finish my meal, realizing just how much of a stigma problem we still have on our hands. I found myself in that familiar position of freeze, wanting to say so much, yet fearing danger if I did. I wanted to ask that guy, “What if it was your child in the back of that ambulance,” or challenge him with, “And what issue is happening in your life that you’re failing to address? I’m sure your stuff is causing harm to those you love, just maybe in a different way? Have you ever considered that scapegoating addicts may help you feel better about yourself and the role that people like you play in perpetuating a trauma epidemic that people take opiates for?”
At one point the mother of the person making the comment said to me, “I’m sorry if this is upsetting you, this isn’t the best dinner conversation.”
In fairness, the mother, a nurse, challenged her son and also seemed put off by his comments.
“What’s upsetting to me,” I finally managed through that pain of freeze, “Is that I am a person with 15 years in recovery. Alcohol and opiates. And I could very well have been one of the junkies you’re talking about.”
Everyone seemed embarrassed and tried shifting the conversation to congratulating me on my recovery and how “well I had done.”
I’m just glad I had the chance to start somewhere.
I never needed Narcan or professional assistance to come out of an overdose or withdrawal, but I was getting close to the point where I could have. And many people in my network of recovery today, including sponsees who are working to make a difference in the world, required professional assistance for their lives to be saved. Yes, some of them had to go through the system of care multiple times before they got it. And I’m so glad they did. Because many parts of the medical and care system (however flawed they may be) did not give up on them, they eventually learned not to give up on themselves. A person I interviewed for my dissertation research was pronounced dead on arrival twice during overdoses, and would go through twenty-six rounds of professional treatment. And she eventually got access to the proper trauma-focused treatment that she required, later going on to make a big difference in her community.
Every day I get to see what happens when we don’t give up on people. Many people who work for me or with me are in long-term recovery. As a professional serving people at all levels of recovery from addiction and mental illness, I am privileged to behold miracles and know that recovery is possible. I know that it can be frustrating—for as many recovery stories as I witness, I see just as many people struggling to get it. And I’ve known way too many people who have died far too young. If you are a first responder, work in the hospitals, or in criminal justice, seeing the consequences of addiction play out in full living color, I realize that you may be jaded. It’s not easy trying to deal with people who are in the grips of it. I invite any of you to come and hang out with people like me some time. See what happens farther down the road when people get well.
I also recognize that an addict or alcoholic may have caused great pain in your life and this can be a hardening experience. I am the first to admit the damage that we can cause in the lives of others around us, and I realize that no apology can ever begin to heal those wounds. For those of us who make it through, we do our best to make amends through changed behavior. And please realize that even those of us in recovery have been impacted by the consequences of others’ addictions. I’ve been married to two people in active addiction. The son of my recovery sponsor was killed by a drunk driver. And although there has been pain to wade through, we’ve both chosen to be part of the solution, which first and foremost means being present for people who need recovery.
There’s always a fear when we advocate for these compassionate approaches to recovery that such softness will only give people more excuses. So let me share the piece of direction that changed my life which, I believe, embraces the delicate balance between validating and challenging people. When Janet, my first recovery sponsor, heard the story of my life and the progression of my disease she said, “Jamie, after everything you’ve been through, it’s no wonder you became addicted. What are you going to do about it now?”
People only respond to challenge and direction when they have first been validated and humanized. It’s not the other way around. Shame fuels the progression of addiction, and the comments and jokes on social media—no matter how innocuous they seem to you—are part of the problem. Intoning the wisdom of Anais Nin, shame is the lie that someone told you about yourself. For most of us, that starts with unhealed trauma and escalates by contact with others who would have us believe the lie. We say in the treatment field that guilt is when you feel bad about the things that you do, and shame is when you believe that you are those bad things. Shame teaches that those messages of defectiveness define you.
I’m grateful that I hung around long enough to learn the difference. And I’m even more grateful that I met people along the way who helped me to uncover a deeper truth about who I really am. For as much professional therapy as I’ve received and as much time as I spend growing in my spiritual practice, I am further grateful that I can still acknowledge my vulnerability. I am only human. If I stop taking care of myself, the chance is very real that I could be in the back of an ambulance, even after seventeen years in recovery, for reasons connected to my addiction and mental health.
To the people that will inevitably need revived from an overdose somewhere in the world today, I send you my love, my empathy, and if you want them, my prayers.
We are not separate.
I was sitting in front of a client one afternoon as she talked to me about the rape she had experienced a few months ago. As the tears streamed down her face, I began to feel my hands shake, not that she could see, but enough that I definitely noticed. She continued in details of what happened and I remember floating to the top of the room. As she cried, I could only observe her and watch without feeling as I had left my body and floated above myself. I could see my clipboard, writing nothing, see the steaming coffee beside me, hear her sobs and comments; what I could not do was feel anything…until I came back inside myself. The session was concluding and I was able to offer some superficial comfort as I escorted her to the door. When I closed the door behind her, I could see the bathroom door as I opened it. I saw my best friend standing there with another male friend of ours as they had this coy look on their faces. I recall thinking I was in trouble but did not seem able to react until they began to pull me along, down the hall, and into the bedroom. Once I was thrown to the bed and my clothes were being torn off, I could feel the tears on my cheeks, just like my clients. I slowly started to float above this scene and watched in horror. When I noticed I was still in my office and I was staring at the door, I came back to the present awareness, went to my desk chair and wept. I knew it was time to reach out for help. I could not control these memories, these feelings any longer.
I reached out to a colleague who was an EMDR therapist. She agreed to see me to help with anxiety issues I was having from work. My agenda was to be able to trust her enough to share this secret and work through it, but I remember being terrified to talk about it. The longer I met with her, however, the more comfortable I became and it did not take too long before I was able to tell her about the experience. That was hard enough, but as I sat in her office, I wondered how I would ever be able to release all the pain of the rape. How do you even begin to talk about this? How do you let go of this? How can you possibly ever trust again? Be whole again? She was very patient with me and, as I could, I began to share what happened with her. I was able to ask some of the questions I had been thinking and she began to tell me what she thought would help.
She introduced to me a procedure known as EMDR therapy. She explained that EMDR works to help resolve traumas and she talked about what we would actually “do” while in sessions. She said I would watch a light bar, following the light with my eyes, and this would begin to let these emotions process in my brain. I thought it was weird and probably would not work, but desperate for healing, I agreed to try. We talked about some of the negative beliefs I had about myself as a result of the sexual assault and how it had altered the way I see myself. I would have flashbacks and nightmares often and we talked about these as well. We took things slowly, as I could not handle too much at a time. She knew that and while pushing me somewhat, she also respected the boundaries, the lines I could not yet cross.
During the sessions, I watched the light bar and also wore headphones, which sounded a rotating “beep” back and forth in unison with the light. With both these forms of bilateral stimulation being conducted, I would picture things in my mind, feel what was going on in my body, and notice what memories or thoughts would come. Often a lot of emotion came out, sometimes I was not sure about what. This was all part of the process. We would target in on a belief due to a situation and then would let me “process” that, meaning I would watch the light, listen to the beeps and notice what happened in my body and mind. It only took a few times to realize something was happening with this process. I was beginning to deal with my past.
We continued to use this therapy to help process other areas of my life as well. Some of the other situations involved other sexual traumas I had not recalled with this great a detail. Although I was having these memories surface, I felt safe knowing we were working through this together.
I cannot say I enjoyed the therapy and remember many times leaving her office emotionally drained; yet I knew I was healing slowly. I recall one of the scariest times of the processing was when she had me hold the picture I was seeing of the rape in my mind and watch the light to begin to process this. Immediately I began to feel anxious as I pictured the scene. Although there was fear, what I realized was I was having these feelings anyway, but it was different this time. I could begin to feel myself releasing some of the pain through this process. I could feel some of the anxiety go from inside my soul. I was tearful as I followed this light and at times would sob. What was important to me, however, was that these images were beginning to change. I was able to see the incidents and not float away; I could stay inside myself and feel what I had pushed down for the first time in years. I was allowing myself to heal. Through the pain of the trauma, I was being led down a safe avenue to process this with the care and safety of my therapist right there, guiding me. I did not have to be alone in these memories anymore.
Sharing the story of the rape was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. To let someone else in to see my pain, shame, embarrassment, anger, and vulnerability was like an ache I had never before felt. But as my therapist always said, in order for true healing to happen, someone has to witness your grief. Until we can share that pain with another person, we will never truly be free of it. This made all the sense in the world to me as I had carried that grief around for years. Being free of it used to just be an unobtainable thought, but now through EMDR therapy, I could see real hope.
As I mentioned previously, I also began to recall with more memories and details a few other incidents that occurred in my childhood. Had I not been doing the bilateral stimulation that EMDR utilizes, I do not think I would have been able to recall some of the specifics that made all the pieces come together. I was able to remember what happened to me in that day care, in that school office and in that neighbor’s home. I was also able to share these experiences with my therapist and we worked through these as well. When I say working through it, it does not mean just forgetting and moving on. With EMDR, I was able to feel the emotions I had pushed down in regards to these events and begin to let the emotions go. It was as if all the years of pain came up and passed through me again. However, in order to be able to truly integrate this as part of me, this had to occur. I never knew what “processing it” meant until I discovered the EMDR journey. It was like a life saver to me. I was able to be free of the pain, not just pushing it away. I could recall the memories, but allow them to stay in the past where they belonged. I did not have to let them hurt me anymore in my present life. I could be free.
Sometime in the sixth grade, I first heard philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s wisdom, “Once you label me, you negate me.” I wish I could tell you that my exposure to this teaching happened while I was attending some kind of summer symposium for gifted children. But alas, I heard it folded into a joke by Mike Myers’ character Wayne Campbell in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World. Because Wayne’s World is one of my favorite films and I watch it several times a year, I am often reminded of Kierkegaard’s teaching and am challenged to ponder its layers of meaning. As a woman in long-term recovery who works with others in recovery, and as an out bisexual woman who serves as an LGBT+ advocate, I often handle questions about what it means to label or be labeled versus what it me mean to define or identify. Moreover, discussions rage around me and within me about whether or not we place too much stock in identifying in a certain way or calling ourselves certain things. Do labels or identifiers help to advance recovery and advocacy, or do they keep us stuck in unhelpful pigeon holes? Do labels really negate us, and does it make it any better if we swap out label with the word identifier? And on a spiritual level, does the practice of labeling or identifying keep us cut off from the essence of our true nature?
Let’s begin by looking at the distinction between labeling and identifying, for exploring this distinction sets a foundation to answer these very important questions.
“I don’t like to label things,” is a line I’ve heard from many people around me, from wishy-washy people I’ve tried to date to employers who have been non-committal about issues like job descriptions, expectations, contracts, and titles. Just about every woman I’ve worked with or known has been hurt in some way by a potential partner saying they don’t want to put a label on something, when it is really just an excuse to buy time or not commit. Yet I have also experienced very deep friendships that can be hard to specifically label or define because the feelings and roles involved don’t fit into any kind of a neat box. And I’ve also accepted work gigs that seem to defy the gravity of definitions and labels. On any given day it’s hard to describe exactly what I “do.” In fact, it’s a bit of a running joke in my family as my brother has long asked me, “What do you do?,” and my stepson often asks, “So Jamie, how many jobs exactly do you have? I count nine.” In my view I only have one job, yet it’s composed of so many facets and segments I can understand where it would feel confusing to people who don’t get it.
So an argument to be made for labels is that in many contexts, they can keep people safe (especially in work settings and in certain interpersonal relationships) and minimize confusion. Labels can work very much like boundaries and expectations in this sense, so it may feel better to many to call it a definition. Yet we’ve all run into cases where once somebody gets labeled as something, especially in a binary context, it creates a limiting and maybe even discriminatory tone. In this day and age, we only have to look to how political affiliations have divided us to see how this plays out. Many Democrats don’t trust Republicans, especially if they find out they are supporter of President Trump, and immediately shut them down as people as a result. The opposite can also happen, as I know many people (especially those who knew me when I was younger and more traditionally religious) don’t want to hear what I have to say because I’m now rather liberal. The devil’s advocate response I’ve heard, especially from others in the LGBT+ community, is that knowing if someone voted for Trump or not is a sign, a mark that helps them know if they’re really safe with that person. Although I heavily relate to this sentiment and even experienced a great deal of it myself after the 2016 election, for me it is not that black-and-white.
The issue of labeling comes up quite a bit in the recovery and LGBT+ communities in which I live and work. My Trauma and the Twelve Steps work is brilliant to some because it is integrative. Yet my perspective confuses many because even though trauma-focused in my orientation, I still introduce myself in appropriate contexts as, “Hi! My name is Jamie, and I’m an alcoholic and addict in long term recovery.” For me, this is an identifier and not a label. And it is my choice to identify publicly in this way, which makes it very powerful for me. Saying this identifier out loud keeps me grounded in the reality of my story, and I take great pride in being able to introduce myself in this way. Where it can feel like a label, in a negative sense, is when people judge me by this identifier, or if I completely define myself by this identifier. For me, identifying opens up possibilities where labeling connotes being limited by the way in which I identify (or by the way others try to identify or label me).
I recently put the question out to my hivemind on social media and there seemed to be a general consensus that identifying has a much more positive connotation in the English language than labeling. Another common theme is that labeling is more likely to come from without whereas identifying is something that is very personal to the individual doing the identifying—it comes with within. Skeptics or critics may roll their eyes at me when I say things like, “I am an openly bisexual woman in long-term recovery from addiction and dissociation.”
More PC bull crap. Why does everyone need to label themselves? Or be special?
I offer this response: Being open an honest about these things has allowed me to heal and be able to say and claim other parts of my identify like I am a deeply spiritual person, proud of my Eastern European ancestry, and I live each day to the fullest, enjoying life as much as I can and helping and serving others who my Higher Power sees fit to put into my path. I am a yogi, a seeker, a lover, a mystic, a sister, a daughter, a surrogate mother, a friend, a teacher, and author, a guide, a movie lover, an expressive artist… Shall I go on?
I can celebrate the fullness of my human identity because I’ve learned to be honest about my story and what it has meant to shaping my identity. Robert Ackerman, the teacher and recovery writer, said in a 2015 talk: “You cannot expect yourself to become a fully functioning individual (physically, emotionally, spiritually) if you deny a part of yourself. The key is integrating all of who you are.” I felt like he was talking directly to me, and in the months following this message circumstances allowed me to come out fully (not just to my close friends and colleagues) about my bisexual identity. Doing so was a game changer not just for my mental health, but for feeling more authentic and genuine in my professional work. I feel now that no one can label me, and if they do so pejoratively, it’s lost any power to affect me.
The yogic perspectives and teachings from other spiritual paths may offer a slightly different angle to the challenge. Teachers I’ve studied with contend, “As soon as you say I am…, then you are limiting yourself. Because you are really your soul and the pureness of consciousness.” In fact, in many yoga settings, it’s common to introduce yourself by saying, “I’m called Pragya,” instead of “I am Pragya.” Even saying things like “I am anxious” can be discouraged because you are identifying yourself with your anxiety.” It may be preferred to say “I have anxiety.”
Ever the bridge builder, my feelings are that both perspectives are true. I know that when I look at the bigger picture and my Divine essence, it is very limiting to label or to identifying myself in any way. Who I really am exists at a soul level that cannot be damaged or affected by anything on this plane. Yet I also live on the human plane for the time being and to know who I am in this body, a knowing that is empowered by the ways in which I identify, helps me to thrive while I’m here. Knowing the communities to which I belong and where I stand in work or relational contexts is important. Important, yes; everything, no. Like many answers to existential questions answered through the yogic perspective, the key is to not be attached. Freeing myself from the grip of attachment—to outcome, to definitions, to identifiers, to labels, to anything is the key to health and happiness. And this detachment I practice while also being honest about what matters to me is what allows me to be fully human and fully Divine, dancing as One between the worlds.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving eighteen years ago, I ran away to Europe. My addiction and untreated emotional problems left me in a state of chronic suicidal contemplation. Every time I used drugs and drank that autumn, I hoped that I wouldn’t wake up. There was nowhere I could really turn for help without being met with answers like, “Just go back to church,” or “Tough it out, you’re too smart for all of this.” Something that I can only describe as a shimmer of clarity woke me up on Black Friday with a clear message: Go to Europe.
The few months I’d spent backpacking through Central and Eastern Europe earlier that year were some of the happiest times in my life to that point. Moreover, getting to connect with my Croatian relatives that summer and in the two previous years I spent traveling and studying in my ancestral homeland was like finding a part of myself I’d been desperate to meet. So over what remained of Thanksgiving weekend I made the arrangements—got my money out of savings, bought a cheap ticket to Prague with the intention of taking the train further south to Croatia and then Hercegovina, and wrote letters explaining to the people in my life that I needed to leave to be okay. I took the gamble, left that Monday, and stayed for almost three years.
I recently recounted the story to one of my oldest and dearest friends. He said in reply, “Jamie, stop saying you ran away to Europe. You moved to Europe.”
I chuckled and sighed when I heard his reframe. Indeed, everything truly wonderful that happened to me—especially finding my recovery and my life’s vocational path—was a direct result of taking that risk to move. In the English language the concept of motivation comes from the Latin word meaning “to move.” So, the very concept of being motivated is rooted in movement. And we don’t give movement (and all the ways we can engage it) enough credit in the change process.
In recovery circles we can be quick to condemn the so-called geographic cure, or the notion that just changing locations is the magic bullet that will make all of your problems disappear. Of course, you take yourself with you wherever you go, and if nothing changes inside then nothing will change overall. Some people would describe what I did by moving to Europe as a geographical cure in the pejorative sense. Even when I share my lead or qualification at a 12-step speaker meeting sometimes I tease myself about it. Janet Leff—my very wise first sponsor and fellow humanitarian aid worker who I met while living in Europe—once made a powerful distinction.
She offered: “Sometimes it’s necessary to make a change—change jobs, change relationships, change cities. We have to ask ourselves though, are we running away from something or running towards something better? Like recovery, our self-dignity, an opportunity that’s better for us and our growth?”
These questions are useful for all of us in recovery as we contemplate making changes, especially if those around us try to shame us for our choices. When I reflect back on those moments in the Fall of 2000, there is no doubt that moving myself in the most radical way possible was needed in order to survive. When I arrived back in Croatia and then to Bosnia-Hercegovina where I settled, I struggled a great deal. It was certainly no geographic cure! I thought that church was the only answer at first and that working for the Catholic Church (which I did) would save me. I thought that I could still drink like a fish and hang out with men who weren’t good for me, as long as I wasn’t popping pills.
And then 12-step recovery found me in the person of Janet Leff, who first befriended me and then asked me to translate a recovery council meeting in the local community for her one day. This powerful system of help, which was devised in my home state of Ohio, found me in the hills of Hercegovina in the years following a brutal civil war in that region. Janet, whose story I tell more fully in Trauma and the Twelve Steps (2012), was there to answer all of my questions I struggled to piece together about my life in chemicals and my emotional demons. A retired clinical social worker, Janet was the first person to give me the framework of unhealed trauma as the main explanation for my mental health and addiction concerns. Because of her commitment to carry a message of recovery to others and lead by example in her life, I’ve been continuously sober since July 2002. There are not enough words to express my gratitude to her and the cosmic flow that brought me to her.
The other layer to this story is how my move to Europe impacted my professional development. If you’re reading this blog on the Institute for Creative Mindfulness site, chances are that you’ve taken a training with me, have read one of my books, or have worked with me in some capacity. What I do today is a direct result of the seeds that Janet and others planted during my work there from 2001-2003. When I moved to Europe, I was starting a graduate degree in history; I took two psychology courses in my undergraduate studies and hated them! So, when both Janet and the priest who was my immediate supervisor suggested that I go to graduate school for clinical counseling, I laughed at them. Janet chuckled in response and said, “Trust me, you’ll be good at it.”
As I reflect back on this time in my life that set the course for the road ahead, I am grateful to be a mover in every sense of the word. Friendships that I made, some very deep, last to this day and continue to shape me. I learned for certain that the world is much bigger and full of wonder than the American bubble of success and failure in which I’d been raised to imprison myself, and there are parts of me to be found everywhere if I’m only brave enough to look. I pray every day that the work I do as I move about the world in the present time honors Janet’s memory.
To be a mover is to embrace a challenge with forward momentum, even if the temptation is to judge yourself as a coward for what may seem like running away. For you, moving halfway around the world may not be required. Although for change to happen, taking actionable steps in the direction of change is an imperative. Movement heals—a simple phrase I often teach in my Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts therapy work. Now, as I spend Thanksgiving weekend of 2018 clean, sober, and mostly sane on holiday in Slovenia and Croatia, two of the places that revived my spirit all those years ago, I realize the deeper truth in this simple teaching.
In memory of Janet Leff (1941-2017)
Institute for creative mindfulness
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