Does anyone else have moments (or even days/weeks) when you feel like your brain is a radio tuner spinning around and around, back and forth, filled with conversations you’ve had, conversations you’ve imagined, images you wish could get out of your head that you’ve seen, thoughts that won’t stop ruminating, patterns that you can’t unsee, and on and on and on?
On the outside, it can look like you’re 100% indifferent. Numb. Anti-social. Unfriendly, or rude, even. On the inside, it’s quite the opposite- because you’re feeling so. much.
There’s an amazing book called If You Feel Too Much by Jamie Tworkowski that really spoke to me about this, in addition to many other books on empathy, and even an archetype known as the “indigo child”. I know I’m not alone in feeling so much because of how many people there are out there who write about the exact same experience. The thing is, helping professionals within this degree of functioning have a significantly more intense experience due to the nature of our work.
If you have a field-based role, like child protective services or outreach workers, you directly experience a traumatic scene in a visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile way. You’re there on the scene, and you are in it. If you are a therapist or clinician, you are indirectly experiencing the trauma of someone else through them telling you about it (at least, for the most part), but still can experience it in a very visceral, intense way. Witnessing suffering of any kind naturally makes an impact and takes a toll.
Now, if you take that to the next level and add someone in the helping profession who not only has a strong sense of empathy, but also has deep perceptual abilities, you’ve just multiplied the intensity of the experience by a whole lot more. What about a helping professional who has mental health conditions like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Autism Spectrum Disorder, Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), Schizophrenia Disorder, etc.? Specifically, people who have the ability to frequently detach from their bodies, perceive sensory information in a four-dimensional way, or have an inner-world of conscious experience.
These are the people who experience the most noise. And, in my opinion, have some of the greatest capacity for vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue because of how much they experience. And also a deep capacity to do incredible things.
For those of you who have been with us since the beginning, you know that Natasha and I are very open about our mental heath diagnoses. I identify with many of the above “categories”, namely because of having synesthesia and OCD. That, plus the fact that I see patterns, sound-associations, and image overlays everywhere I go, because I’m an artist and a constant “thinker”. I could (and have) literally be still and just think for hours at a time.
It’s hard, if not nearly impossible, to turn my brain off.
This isn’t something that’s unique or rare- most of us nowadays have been conditioned to multi-task and seek a stimuli-overload in order to fill our time and avoid our growing collective anxiety within the state of the world.
Sometimes, everything just feels too much.
And that’s what made me want to write this post. How do we process it all? The micro, mezzo, and macro stuff that surrounds us constantly. How do we make sense of it? How do we continue living our lives knowing what we know, unable to unsee what we’ve seen, unable to forget the emotions we’ve felt, and the violence we’ve expeienced?
When should we stop processing and start accepting?
I can sometimes feel guilty if I’m not actively thinking about solutions to problem-solve the conditions surrounding my clients’ lives and their service provision. If it’s not visualizing Venn diagrams of psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioral/feminist/systems interventions, it’s listing and crossing out financial/legal/medical/community resources that will break the cycle of my clients’ oppression and trauma cycles. Even though I’m a processor/feeler, I will still tap into that solution-focused mindset that I have recently acquired after starting to work in field-based services.
I’ll give you an example. Lately, I’ve felt guilt and anxiety over not feeling competent in working with psychosis and the major impacts it can make in vulnerable people’s lives. It’s not that I don’t have experience- I do, thanks to my job. But the idealistic thought of “if there was a class I could take in fully understanding psychosis and all of the evidence-based interventions, then I would know everything there is about psychosis, and I would be competent” is so real. My blunt (though understanding) office-mate frequently reminds me that this is not how it works.
But the struggle is still real. Especially for anxious folks.
We’re not satisfied with answers that support gray area, take away the belief that we have control over everything, or that disprove fearful situations can be solved using strategies that are categorized into nice, neat little boxes, all tied with string.
Same goes for fighting for the world’s injustices and battles. If I just spread the word and educate people enough, then I will be moving the cause forward, and if I fight hard enough, I will force change to happen.
If I ruminate enough over this situation that I experienced, I will find a different way to approach it. I will find a different outcome.
If I punish myself enough by replaying that traumatic scene over and over again, I will understand more and strive to deserve the privilege of helping people through my suffering.
If I play music in my head all day long, it’ll keep the things I’m avoiding at bay and make me keep going and moving and going and moving and going and moving, like the energizer bunny.
And so it seems that feigning the possession of control and obsession with finding absolute answers are the things that create the most noise in my brain. And that’s only work-related, let alone my personal stuff.
Is there anyone else who experiences this?
So what do we, feeler-empaths-thinkers, do?
The thing that scares us most: let it go.
I’m not talking about letting the questions go- I’m talking about the beliefs go, the ones that inform the questions. Like, knowing how everything works prior to exploring the world will make me “live the right way” and “do the right thing”. Or the belief that says I need to suffer to deserve joy. That I have no right to be in this field if I haven’t experienced the exact same thing my clients experience. That I can’t feel happiness if my clients are still out on the streets and dying. That I, alone, can solve all of the world’s problems, “if I only work hard enough”.
But it’s just not true. None of it is.
Life isn’t a video game where you have to earn points to get to the next level. Every level is already overlaid around you, everywhere; you’ve just got to live it.
I’ll say it again: you’ve just got to live it.
And be kind to yourself. Doing the best you can includes making mistakes and then doing it a different way the next time. Operating from a justice-informed mindset includes remembering that losing the battle doesn’t mean you’ve lost the war. Remembering that there is no book or class that is going to prepare you for everything you will come across. Only holding space for the bad stuff, the trauma, isn’t going to solve it; and not holding space for it doesn’t mean you care any less about solving it.
Directing the energy of that noise-ridden whirlwind in your head into moments that bring you joy and peace has a ZERO-PREREQUISITE policy; there’s no such thing as “earning” it. YOU GET IT!
You get it.
There’s a reason why there isn’t just one social worker, one first responder, one therapist, one healer. There are many of us, all over the world. We are many. We are everywhere. Because no one of us is ever doing this work alone. And it helps me to remind myself of that.
We’re never alone.
So I check in with myself when that lonely, bitter, murky, heavy feeling sneaks in to blow drowsy, numbing smoke over my eyes; and I say/think, “Not today.” The same way I would tell someone trying to sell me something at my front door. No more or less energy, just the same. Here are some other ways that have helped me GET OUT of my head:
These are just some things that have helped me get out of my head, into my body and into the world. The noise will still follow me off in the distance, but sometimes it just gets tired of waiting and slinks off somewhere that’s not around me. Even if those moments are not as frequent as I’d like, I have to be kind to myself- the same as I’d tell a client. It takes practice and time. Something I’m learning to be quite patient with.
And that’s okay.
So, to anyone who also has a case of the ever-lingering “headnoise”, I get you. You’re not alone. Give yourself permission to practice letting go of what you think you can control and explore what lights you up. You will not save the world. But you will start a ripple in people’s lives that evolve into waves of hope and change. Smile knowing that you are doing that by starting with the basic care of your Self. You are 100% worth it.
I’ve always had a hard time admitting that I have limitations. I used to pride myself on being able to “handle it all”, whatever that means. Come to find out, pushing through isn’t sustainable or healthy. I realized, somewhat recently, that self-imposed limitations are healthy and don’t make you weak. Acknowledging my boundaries, protecting my heart and being true to myself have become increasingly important tasks. It’s taking me longer to identify and define my professional limitations, mostly because I recently dove head first into my career and I’m still trying to find some sort of balance.
I’m incredibly grateful for the lessons that my clients teach me about myself. I’m vulnerable, which means that every meaningful interaction I have teaches me something about myself and the world around me. The interactions I have that are uncomfortable are generally the best teachers.
Recently I had an experience with a transfer client that impacted me to my core and forced me to question my abilities. I hated almost every second of it. Long story short, this client exhibited antisocial and narcissistic traits that were piercing and honestly, gut wrenching. The heaviness in the room was indescribable and I left feeling emotionally violated every single time. Needless to say, I didn’t continue working with him. There’s a lot more to this story, but it’s not relevant.
I tried everything I could think of with this client. I tried being structured, I tried going with the flow, I tried changing the power dynamic in the room, I tried focusing on rapport building and engagement, and I tried just starting therapy. I consulted with multiple people about his case in order to gain some extra insight. If it sounds chaotic, it kind of was. I scrambled outside of session to be as prepared as possible, but ultimately I left feeling incompetent (his words, not mine), anxious and eventually, angry.
After some major de-briefing with supervisors and colleagues, I realized a lot about myself (and him). I realized first and foremost that I did my absolute best. I continued to prepare for our sessions even though my gut was telling me to run. I also realized, more importantly, that I found my first major limitation. I can say with certainty that at this point in my career, I’m not ready/willing to work with someone who exhibits those specific traits at that level of intensity. My soul can’t bear it.
I will admit, that was a tough pill to swallow. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was selling myself short or if I was just being dramatic. I felt like a failure. It took some time to acknowledge that I did what I could and I managed his case ethically. I advocated for myself and for him (because no one should have a therapist who feels this way about them) and I did what I felt was right. I set boundaries, I respected them and then asked that my supervisors respect them (which they did!).
It’s hard to put a name to your limitations and to make your boundaries known to those around you in a professional setting. It can feel counterintuitive because we’re just supposed to handle it. We’re helping professionals, this comes with the territory and we just need to deal, right?
At least it’s wrong for me. Yes, I’m a helping professional and yes, I work with people who are experiencing the lowest lows of their life, but this felt different. My gut was screaming at me and I trusted my gut. I’ll sit with you in the trenches, I’ll be here for you and support you in any way that I can, but I won’t be treated like that. I had to learn firsthand about this limitation and I’m glad I did.
When I was thinking about my professional boundaries before writing this post, I realized that one was missing. I didn’t identify the one limitation that I expected myself to have given recent personal experiences.
I didn’t identify working with individuals who are battling substance use. I recently experienced a death in my family related to substance use and honestly, I was petrified to go back to work. Substance use and mental health are so enmeshed and I was afraid that I couldn’t manage my countertransference in the room. By the way, it’s okay to not be able to manage yourself and your feelings after a loss, I’m definitely not trying to minimize people’s experiences. What I am saying is that somehow, I was able to use my grief as fuel to inform my clients about risks, concerns and available resources. I was able to utilize my heartbreak and transform it into passion. I want my clients who are struggling with substance use to know that they are cared for, which is something I hope my family member felt.
I strongly believe that my ability to be vulnerable is the reason why I’ve been able to transform my sadness into passion and strength. I’m not going to pretend like it’s been easy, because it hasn’t. I have my moments and luckily, I have an amazing team to lean on when I need to. I have greater empathy for people fighting this disease and I feel like a fire has been ignited within me to do what I can to support those in search of sobriety.
So, maybe certain experiences that you feel might limit you actually trigger something in you to soften, to feel differently and to continue to grow.
Just something to think about.
Thank you so much for reading this long-winded post. I hope it made sense. I just kept typing because it felt SO good to be back. Also, thank you again for your patience. For the first time in a long time I feel like my head isn’t completely in the clouds. I’m remembering all over again that I am enough.
Wishing you love and light.
*Trigger warning. Dark stuff ahead. Including SRA.*
Since I was very young, I’ve always pushed myself over the edge and into black holes that I usually end up wishing I had never gone down. It’s like a traffic accident; you know you should keep going, but you just. can’t. stop. looking. away. Until you realize that you’re about to hit the person in front of you like a total idiot. Admittedly, that’s how I am with dark things.
I’ve always been drawn to dark stuff, and that hasn’t really changed at all. I started reading memoirs about survivors of rape and articles about kidnapping when I was six. What can I say? I’m weird.
I say this, because as much as being drawn to complex, painful topics has led me to do extremely meaningful work, it has also recently forced me to challenge my expectations of myself. It’s so cliché (which, of course, most commonly shared experiences are), but I discovered two weeks ago that *GASP* I have the insatiable need to be good at everything and understand everything and make everyone proud of me and impress everyone.
Oiy. I’ve gotta, once again, thank my dear supervisor for pointing this out to me. Someone who’s only known me for six months. Go figure. Bastard. JK. I love her.
Let’s backtrack. This came up because I began researching some of the darkest of the dark kind of sexual abuse (which is all dark- make no mistake): SRA, otherwise known satanic ritual abuse. Cults and fringe communities have fascinated me for a while, so, mentally, I just sort of clumped SRA together with all of “them”. Turns out, it’s a whole other kind of creature.
What took me over the edge and into that black hole is that a domineering component of SRA is animal and baby mutilation, torture, and sexual abuse, not to mention the veneration of parental incest. I won’t say anything further.
I’ve heard about and seen some pretty dark shit. Death, incest, rape, torture. And it’s all horrific, all painful. But something about animals and babies just struck a fucking chord in me that happened to be my pain threshold. I honestly thought that my only pain threshold was a very specific degree of anxiety and panic, not even physical.
That was a surprise.
We’ve all heard of the stages of grief, and it’s sort of funny how I actually played this out in accepting that I have limits IN MY PROFESSION. I thought my limits were only in my personal life! My professional life has been where I feel most confident and stable. Like who I want to be all the time. But, damnit, I found my Self in my professional life when I wasn’t expecting to find her.
Why am I feeling this way?! Sexual trauma has been your specialty since the beginning of time! What makes this any different?!
The rare kind. Only animals and newborn babies are without the dark yin to the bright yang of humanity’s cruel fallibilities. And not even my professional self can intellectualize, nor process, the wordless [fill in the blank, cause’ there is no word for this] experience that is the knowledge of hurting someone so new and exquisitely delicate to the world.
And it makes me want to die.
Maybe that’s the specific chord this experience struck: my suicidal one. Because thinking of those things existing (and I know they do) makes me not want to live anymore.
And it’s SO bizarre because, I am in NO WAY saying that all the other fucked up shit out there is “not as bad”, or doesn’t shake me to my core. I guarantee you it does. Just something about the underground, venerated nature of it, masqueraded as a religion...just makes it seem that much deeper hidden in the ground, where we can’t stop it, or even reach it, which is how it keeps perpetuating. And it makes me want to erase myself from a world where that resides within it.
Fwew. I told you this would be a dark one! But I suspect I’m not alone. Or I really hope not. I know this makes me human. But when you’re constantly surrounded with trauma 40+ hours a week and literally in the shit of it (no joke- I mean literally, just days ago, but that’s a different story), it still shocks the hell out of you when you find out that not EVERYTHING is numbed out to you. And the job opportunity I was recently offered for treating survivors of SRA? Well, turns out, I’m not so numb to it.
So that’s what I learned. There are jobs I KNOW I couldn’t do. Like undercover work in animal cruelty cases or working with sex traffickers or perpetrators of torture. I’ve had clients who came to see me for experiencing trauma, and it came out later on that they ended up perpetuating violence against others, for a number of reasons; that’s always hard for me to hear, but I already know who they truly are and where that came from long before they told me that part, so it feels different. I can still see them.
Someone coming to me already in that violence-perpetrating space, that would be something I don’t know if I could do. And you know what? That’s okay. I still see the importance and positivity in someone else being able to help them who will be able to see them as a person. Because they shouldn’t have to work with someone who looks at them and only sees the faces of every traumatized survivor she’s served. I can own that. I’m proud that I can say that, because I know it’s the ethical and healthy thing to do.
Because at the end of the day, we all started out as innocent kids. Even if it was only up until you went home from the hospital that day.
I need to forgive myself for being so hard on myself about being human and having emotions, having empathy, even having opinions. That’s the human condition. My thought in having this aha-moment about limitations brought up a guilt-laden fear that came with the idea of me setting down limits: if I don’t help them, who will? These are the most vulnerable, underserved souls out there. Well guess what:
THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE BESIDE ME WHO CAN HELP PEOPLE.
I’m not the only one, for fuck’s sake! How comforting is that?! And I want YOU to say that over and over to yourself, if you’ve felt any of these things too.
I’m working on my perfectionist, people-pleasing, insecurities. I would never want my interns or staff to think that it’s “imperfect” or “not okay” to feel a certain type of way. Oh my gosh, I want them to embrace that. Be your own person. Acknowledge and honor your limitations. For me, I know that not honoring my limits negatively impacts my mental health and will ultimately compromise my life. Challenging yourself and violating your limitations are not the same thing.
Limits are a form of sacred self-care. They tell you when to hold your heart a little closer, because that’s your emotional and spiritual dam that keeps your joy alive.
I hope that all makes sense. I feel like Natasha and I always say that at the end of our posts, and it’s probably because despite all of our badass vibes, we still just want to be heard and understood. Just like everyone else. You know :-)
Thank you so much for listening. Love you.
Ah, vicarious trauma.
Those two words weren’t put together for a very, very long time. As a therapist, sometimes there’s pressure to leave work at the door and go about your day-to-day life unscathed by everything that you witness and experience. Well, that’s BS. Honestly, sometimes I’m left feeling hopeless, anxiety-ridden and just so, so sad.
How could you not experience an unpleasant emotion (or 12) after sitting with someone while they describe painful memories, thoughts and experiences? How does it not tug on your heart strings? I had a few moments while working at the trauma center when I felt myself mentally check out while someone was engaging in their trauma narrative. At first, I didn’t understand it. I felt like a failure and I automatically blamed myself. I questioned my ability to be a therapist who suffers from anxiety, panic and depression.
What I realized, after lots of soul searching and supervision, is that mentally checking out was my brain’s way of protecting itself. The stories I was hearing were filled with so much pain and betrayal and I wasn’t sure how to process all of it. I could physically feel their pain. I started to get dizzy and nauseous before and after each session. I was carrying everything that they said and everything that I felt around on my shoulders and wasn’t giving myself space to be hopeless, anxiety-ridden and sad.
Sitting with someone in the trenches isn’t easy and it can become increasingly difficult to pull yourself out once the session is over. When you’re stuck and unable to process, home doesn’t feel quite like home. Things that you love begin to fade into the background. I remember my bed becoming my best friend and for anyone who knows me, you know I’m not one to lounge and stay in bed for hours on end. I’m always on the go.
As I grow personally and professionally, I realize that I have specific things that trigger me and impact me more than others. I have a pretty good routine that I engage in before and after every trauma-filled session. I do my best to express myself by sharing my thoughts and feelings with people who I love and trust. I attend weekly individual and group supervision. I work for an organization that supports self-care and promotes mental health days when needed.
But, lately it’s been really hard. I’m finding it difficult to engage in my typical self-care activities. I’m feeling drained and unable to focus on my guided meditation, positive affirmations and deep breathing practices. I’m finding it difficult to keep up with this blog, which hurts to admit. My heart is aching and it’s tough to come out of.
I’ve been noticing that I’m extra sensitive when a client discusses a traumatic experience that involves substance use. My hands start sweating and my mind starts wandering. That’s my clue that I’m being triggered and that I need to check myself.
I recently experienced a death in my family that involves a long history of mental health and substance use. I keep hearing stories that are very similar to what my brother-in-law went through. I’m hearing stories that are traumatic in nature and now there’s an added layer of sadness that comes along with it. He went through so much and suffered for so long, just like my clients. He ran away from every trauma reminder that he faced. He would always tell me that it was easier to run and numb himself than face the people and the memories that hurt him so deeply.
So, when I hear something similar being said to me in session, I’m brought back to the exact moment he opened up to me for the first time. I’m reminded of the feelings that I felt and the thoughts that were crowding my mind.
Not only am I experiencing an added layer of pain, but I’m noticing my frustration with failing systems even more. Our justice system, or school system, our mental health system. I’m not saying all of it is bad. But, I know that a lot of systems failed my brother-in-law. The people who watched my brother-in-law slip through the cracks are the same people who watch my clients slip through the cracks. As you can see, this brings up a lot.
I could go on and on about him and what happened, but that’s not the point of this post. I just wanted to share this part of my life for two reasons:
Maybe it’ll help you feel less alone and instead, deeply understood.
We are all human first. We have our own painful memories to face just like our clients do. We will all reach a point when we are triggered and re-traumatized by something that someone says or does. I don’t have all the answers and I don’t have a list of coping strategies that are guaranteed to work. But, I know what keeps me going. I know what sets my soul on fire and I hold it really, really close to my heart. As always, thanks for reading and for providing me with a safe space. Engaging with you folks is part of my self-care now.
Wishing you all love and light.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m not a little bit of a masochist. But before I go on, I want to be very clear about a few things:
First and foremost, I do NOT blame my clients for the way I feel and how I am impacted by my work. I want to blame the people who hurt them. But I also know that even those people most likely learned how to hurt from someone else hurting them. I don’t know who to blame, and I give myself permission to be enraged anyway, by the perpetrators of violence who hurt the people I care for. Because in the moment, when I’m with my clients, I really don’t give a fuck where their perpetrator(s) learned how to hurt. All I know is that they hurt the person I’m with, and I see them hurting. And that’s not fucking okay.
None of it is.
So, like I said, I sometimes I wonder if I’m not a little bit of a masochist. Like Silas in The Da Vinci Code. I mean, only CRAZY people would choose to get into this field, am I right? We see so much horror and so much suffering, yet we choose to keep coming back. What makes it different though, is that I don’t come back time and time again for the suffering; I come back for the resiliency and commitment to justice. As I’m sure most of you do too.
I’d like to think that doing the right thing is showing up to right a wrong, even when it’s scary to do so. Not to mention wayyy complicated. And messy. And not at all what you thought it would be.
That has been my experience being in the trauma field. And I’ve said it since the beginning: I’m a lifer, and I’m never going back. This is where I’m meant to be, and this is what I was called to do. It called to me, and I answered, ever since I was a little kid.
I remember being really young, like seven or eight, and reading reports and memoirs about girls who were raped. I remember feeling sick to my stomach, but not stopping. I had to keep reading. I was morbidly hypnotized by the notion that this was actually going on and curious about how it started even happening to begin with.
I’ve always been drawn to those who suffer. It started with animals. Since I was maybe five or so, I would draw intense pencil drawings of wild animals yearning to be free and escaping their torturous lives. I read as many Zoobooks and library books on animals as I could get a hold of, and these were what informed my awareness of their plight. Looking back, I can see that I was already a vegan and advocate at a young age.
I’ve been actively in the trauma field as a practitioner since my senior year of college when I interned as a case manager in a domestic violence program. I still remember a case involving child pornography that didn’t get picked up by DCFS, no matter how many times I called them, and that was the most traumatizing part of all in that time of my life; the inaction. The injustice. The systemic let-down and failure to protect and serve victims.
I felt sad and confused. And also incredibly GUILTY. Because I had to report it as a mandated reporter, I ethically also had to tell my client, even though nothing resulted in it. My client was distraught. And that’s when I felt ashamed. Ashamed that I shared the same professional title of the people who denied our (yes, our) report of abuse: social worker.
I have since then learned more, and now know better, that this is not my fault, but, at the time, it felt so awful. And it still does when situations like that one happen, but not because I feel guilty; because I feel enraged at the victim-blaming and oppressive features of our justice system that keep people in power in the safe zone. And anger, to me anyway, always feels better than sadness. With anger, I can act. With sadness, I am paralyzed. But, without getting too ahead of myself, I also know now that there are other ways to cope. But I’ll get to that later.
In grad school, I interned as a therapist at a rape crisis center. It would have been helpful if my grad program had talked about vicarious trauma. Because it was during this time that I developed PTSD.
Something clicked during that time of hearing so many horrific stories that hadn’t before: that these things could happen to anyone. That strangers could break into your house without you knowing it and hide in your closet. And then come out while you’re sleeping and rape you in the middle of the night when no one else is around to hear or see you.
I became hypervigilent. I began checking my closet at night and double/triple-checking to make sure my windows were locked. It feels so wrong to say, but I had been “lucky” to not have had those experiences personally. It had never been something I’d had to worry about before. And being exposed to purposefully human-caused atrocities, specifically intimate ones like sexual violence, made it so so real.
I’ve always been a protector. Whether it was at home or as a defense on the soccer field. It’s in my blood. I always make sure I walk on the side next to the street and keep the person I’m with on the inside. It’s just in my nature, and these experiences in being immersed in sexual trauma exacerbated them.
Not to mention that I have OCD, specifically the symptom with intrusive thoughts of disturbing things. Add images of rape and torture into the mix, and I was flooded. I was drowning.
It didn’t help that my school put me on a performance contract because I started to suffer academically. Yes, a contract. I even took the chance in being vulnerable and sharing with my field liaison (field seminar professor) that I didn’t feel okay mental-health wise and I needed help. Instead, she put me on a contract, which stated that if I didn’t increase my productivity as well as attend mandated therapy (no resources were given by the way), I would be kicked out of the program.
To say that I felt betrayed, weak, and invisible doesn’t even convey what message that sent to me. It wasn’t until I got a new supervisor at my internship that I finally learned about vicarious trauma. I specifically remember the conversation. I asked her, “I keep seeing floating penises everywhere. What does it mean?” Her response was, “That’s something survivors of sexual abuse experience.” And it all clicked into place.
That’s how powerful not talking about this is, but more importantly, how powerful NOT SUPPORTING people in our field is. And it can lead to much, much worse things. People who were survivors of trauma (whether primary or vicarious) who die by suicide don’t die from suicide; they die from PTSD. That should be the stated cause of death.
We have to talk about this and not shun it away when people have the courage to even subtly or vaguely HINT at it, let alone say it in it’s full disclosure. We can’t be afraid of it. People freak the fuck out, only thinking of themselves from a liability standpoint. How fucked up is that?
Since becoming a supervisor six years ago, I’ve been able to move through my own healing. I give my interns and staff the space to process and identify their experiences in a safe, supportive space. I not only give them permission to be vulnerable and honest, but also normalize it. And help them cope, guiding them through this field we both love and hate so much.
I still see clients and still do trauma psychotherapy, as well as have a management position. People who stop working with clients seem to get out of touch and lose their understanding for what this feels like. Like many, I don’t want sympathy. I want empathy and solutions. And that’s 100% legitimate.
Being exposed to people’s suffering can be so painful. Images of the aftermath of being physically hurt aside, is the overwhelming feeling of HELPLESSNESS. I feel this the most with victims of active domestic violence and people who are homeless. Which are most of my clients now.
Homelessness is not only painful because of the extreme vulnerability these people are in, but also because of the systemic barriers in them accessing care and basic human rights. It feels like a fight sometimes and not a process to help someone get housed. And there’s something very wrong with that.
I won’t even go into the stigma and ignorance surrounding homelessness and people who have untreated mental illnesses. It would just be too much for right now. But it’s certainly something I take pleasure in educating people on.
What happens a lot in the homeless field, in particular, is death. I’m not gonna sugar-coat it. If you aren’t already familiar with The ACES Study, I encourage you to look it up (bottom line: trauma can kill). Death of clients happens frequently in my field. I lead a death debrief just two weeks ago. Talk about guilt and sitting with that.
The truth is that there is more we don’t have control over than we do. And we really feel the weight of that during moments like these that literally took someone’s breath away.
Similarly, working with clients who are so stuck in the cycle of domestic violence, as well as their own historically un-nurtured complex trauma histories, is what has been most recently challenging for me.
I’m a trauma specialist. I get the dynamics, I understand where the cognition come from, unhealthy and damaging as they can be. Doesn’t make it any easier. Even as a supervisor and licensed clinician, I’ll still be the first to say that it fuckin sucks to see. And I tell my staff the same thing.
Alongside just processing what this feels like, I also try to emphasize what we do have control over. Even if it’s just showing this person what respect and nurturing look like; what a secure attachment style looks like. Corrective experiences, to me, are what are most healing.
Because only a healing relationship can heal a relational trauma. You can do as much CBT as you see fit, but what it really comes down to is THE RELATIONSHIP.
That’s the basis of this whole thing.
That being said, here are some things and thoughts that help me when I’m feeling overpowered by adversity:
1. Corrective experiences are real and powerful. They will literally build new neural pathways and allow someone to experience safety for the first time.
2. I have limits. Even though I will do whatever it takes to help someone, I accept that I don’t have control over everything.
3. I can only do my best. I can’t do everything, but I will do my best in the capacity I have.
4. Vent. Vent. Vent. Debrief with your colleagues, even if you’re not searching for a solution. The validation you’ll get is relieving in and of itself.
5. Give yourself permission to take breaks. It’s not selfish to walk down to the coffeeshop, buy a pastry and chai latte, and scroll through celebrity gossip websites for 15 minutes.
6. It’s healthy to engage in totally shallow, bubbly stuff. I love Say Yes to the Dress. And Ryan’s Roses. And online shopping. And I don’t care! It’s a stress reliever to not be SO INVOLVED and GO DEEP all the time.
7. Escapism isn’t a bad thing. Read that sci fi/fantasy novel, watch that rom com movie. More often than not, it actually allows us to process our own stuff in an indirect, non-threatening way.
8. Get perspective back with the natural world. Sometimes I need to feel physically small to reign in my overwhelming emotions. And nothing else seems to do this like hiking in my mountains, looking up at the stars at night, or imagining orbiting over Earth. Everything that seems so loud suddenly becomes quiet.
9. Create and protect your soul-time. Whatever and wherever that may be, and it can be fluid. For me, it’s sitting on my balcony and just drinking in all of my senses: the green of the trees, the chirping of birds, the snugness of my round plush chair, the taste of cinnamon in the warm coffee mug that’s in between my hands. It’s sacred. And so needed.
10. Spend time with innocents. For some, it’s kids, for others like me, it’s animals. They reinstall a sense of wonder, joy, and tenderness that often gets lost in this work. Snuggles and evenings with my kitty are the best. It never ceases to amaze me that a creature so beautiful, wild, and precious allows me in.
11. Hugs from people I trust and love. One of my love languages is touch. And in a field where touch has been twisted into an evil, traumatizing thing, I need to reclaim that by holding and being held by people I have a loving relationship with.
12. Asking for support. Whenever I’m having a bad or off day, I ask for what I need. This can be a heart-to-heart with a friend, a verbal pukage to my supervisor, a fun date night, a day off, etc. As long as I do what I need, not avoid what I’m scared of.
13. I’m doing more than I think, and I’m helping more than I give myself credit for. It’s not elitist. It’s being loving to myself.
14. Be kind. I love that country song “Humble and Kind” because it’s so true. There are a shit ton of bad people in this world, but they also get more air-time. The people who do good to others and lead meaningful lives are too busy being in the moment to get the spotlight. Don’t lose your kindness toward others just because of the shitheads in the world. They don’t deserve you, but the good people do.
15. Get rid of the judgy. Embrace morbid humor and realize that sometimes we have to laugh to keep from crying. There’s a difference between humor and bitterness. And we need the former to survive this chaos.
16. Know the difference between alone time and isolation. Alone time regenerates your energy. Isolation keeps you from gaining any energy at all.
17. Treat yourself well, don’t compare, and don’t shame. Let yourself enjoy the roof over your head and the things you have; your clients would want you to, just as they would.
18. Join or be part of a cause that takes action. Whether that’s in-person or online. It’ll make you feel like you’re moving the world forward.
19. Accept that you will be changed by this field, and nothing can stop that. And if you don’t want do, it’s okay to pick something else. And if you stay, know that the kind of self-changes that happen are also making you into a stronger, resilient person.
20. Give yourself permission to let go of people and activities that no longer make you a better person. Surround yourself with people and activities where there is a 50-50, back-and-forth, regenerative flow. No one is perfect, and we all have flaws, but not everyone is meant to be with you for every chapter of your life. Find the ones who should be in this chapter and cherish them.
These are just some things that help me experience meaning, healing, and joy. Because in the trauma field, or whichever field you’re in, you have to put on your own oxygen mask first before you can help the person next to you put on theirs.
There’s a reason I say “we” here more than “I”. Because healing takes community and integration. Not isolation or segregation. We all have a story to tell, and all of our stories matter. Don’t for one second think yours is less-than. We all have things to offer and contribute to this world and the creatures in it. And we can only do that if we take care of ourselves and nourish our spirits.
We’re here with you. We love you. And you’re not in this alone.
Major depressive disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder
There it is, folks.
Those are my diagnoses. They don’t own me and they certainly don’t define who I am, but they matter.
So, this is my message to each of them…
YOU. You have impacted me in more ways than you can imagine. My feelings toward you have changed over the last year and a half but I really hated you at first. I can remember my first thought when I was told that you were a part of my life. “Damnit. Not me.” I was pissed, I was scared, I was unsure of my next move. I didn’t know how people would respond to you. I was even skeptical of your existence in my world. Surely, there must be some mistake and yet, it made so much sense. Can you sense the confusion?
I had no idea how to interact with you AT ALL. I panicked. I kept thinking, “I can’t feel like this forever”, “This can’t be it for me”, “I have to drop out of grad school”. Catastrophizing to the max. You brought out fears in me that I didn’t realize I had. Because of you, I was experiencing 2-3 panic attacks per day. I was isolating. I was missing class. I was cooped up on my couch begging for the panic to subside. You sucked so badly (you still do sometimes).
Until I met you, I had never felt so low, so insecure, and so unsure of myself and my future. You brought out the worst in me. I was irritable. I was annoyed. I was projecting hardcore. I knew a lot about you. I had studied you in school and I had experienced you through some of my loved ones, but I never expected you to be this intrusive. You’re powerful, I’ll give you that.
“How am I supposed to help people if I can’t get my shit together?” “What am I going to do if I have a panic attack in class or on the job?” “How am I supposed to live this miserable?” The most impactful thing you did to me was steal my self-worth, my vision for my future, and my desire to keep moving through life. You made me want to go to sleep and not wake up. You made me think death was an option.
You told me to miss my psychiatry appointments. You whispered in my ear that the best thing I could do for myself was hide. When I found the courage to drive to therapy, you told me to stay in my car a little bit longer until I was too late to go inside. You made me doubt my abilities and truthfully, I’m still learning how to fully trust myself again.
Even though you can be wicked and ruthless, you’ve taught me a lot. Once I started crawling out from under you, I realized that there was no need to fight you anymore. Instead, I found myself wanting to learn how to integrate you into my life. I didn’t want to keep running. I didn’t want you to enjoy the chase any more than you already had. I wanted to rip the power away from you. I wanted my life back. What I came to realize is that I didn’t end up wanting my exact same life back. Instead, I wanted a life that included more self-care, self-love, healthy boundaries, honesty and transparency. I built (and am still building) a life where it’s okay to not be okay; a life where I forgive myself and treat myself with respect.
You did all of that for me. Without you, I’m not sure when any of that would have happened. Maybe it wouldn’t have ever happened. But I genuinely think that something had to give. I was carrying way too much for way too long. You forced me to see something that I chose to be blind to. You inevitably forced me to stare my past experiences dead in the eye. You forced me to confront the darkest parts of my life; the fears that were buried deep down and walled off.
You are the reason I started this blog. Well, one of the reasons. I’ve always been an open book but I would have never had the courage to start something like this if not for the BS you put me through. I learned all about my resiliency and strength because of you.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you (you still bug though, so don’t get too excited). Thank you for forcing me to change my life and change the way I treat myself. Thank you for expanding my knowledge and giving me extra insight into what some of my clients might be thinking and feeling.
You’ve humbled me to my core. You’ve brought me to my knees and shown me what it means to crawl out of a daunting and seemingly never ending hole. Because of what you’ve put me through, I’m no longer afraid to speak my truth and be authentically me.
All that being said, you still manage to stump me from time to time. When I start to notice you creeping up, I freeze and I’m left wondering whether or not I’ll be able to climb out of the hole again. I notice myself wanting to control what I’m experiencing and immediately change how I’m thinking and what I’m feeling. I begin to fight you all over again.
This brings me to my hopes for 2019.
Firstly, I hope for more acceptance. Acceptance is key. Relinquishing control is important for my sanity. I want to continue gently reminding myself that life is fluid and that my experiences with my mental health are not either “good” or “bad”.
Secondly, I hope for connectedness. I want to continue sharing my story and more importantly, I want to continue hearing YOUR stories. You all inspire me more than you know. You’re all so special and so important to me.
Thirdly, I hope to learn more skills that help me manage my day-to-day anxiety so that I don’t always go straight to “oh shit, it’s happening again.”
Lastly, I hope to inspire others to speak their truth and reach out for help. I know this is cliché, but it truly gets better. It can be a lonely and disheartening process- I get that. But there’s a lot of support out there and even when you feel like no one else cares, just know that I do. I care so much.
I see you. I hear you. I accept you. I honor you. I love you. You are so enough.
As always, thank you for reading this post and for checking out our blog. Your support means the world to us. Happy Holidays, friends.
Wishing you all love and light.
Dear mental illness,
I didn’t really know what I wanted to say to you for the longest time. You’ve been with me since the beginning, and you’ll be with me at the end. I know that you’ve taught me so much and have most certainly also been a challenge. I think we can both agree that I have undoubtedly detailed most of my reflections about you and the experiences that we’ve had together. But what I really want to say is how I want our future to look starting next year in 2019.
Last year showed us where we came from and taught us who to trust. And who we can’t always trust; definitely who not to trust. It ultimately taught us to trust ourselves. You and I.
I have more peace with you and less shame. In the future, I don’t want this to turn into minimizing or ignoring you. Especially when I have a job wherein so many of the people I work for have mental illnesses far more debilitating and far more exacerbated than mine.
I want to use you. I want to forge you into something useful, that will create my long-awaited goals, hopes, and dreams. I want to move us into the next level, where I immerse myself in the parts of you that have been too scary or too unknown, so that I can befriend you. Because who has ever regretted befriending a powerful force that is actually on their side?
I think the way to do that is going to be me acknowledging to both of us that I am the person. Not you. I am the sentient being with autonomy and free will. And as difficult as it will be, I want to unlearn parts of you that, like a parasite, have been trying very hard to hijack me.
In 2019, I intend to find ways to replace those parts of you with self-generated chemicals of my own choice and doing. I intend to no longer waste vast amounts of time being paralyzed by you because of the lies you tell me that you know better and the lies I tell me that you do too.
I intend to not waste another year complaining and whining about how abusive and confusing you can be. I don’t need to contribute to that path toward a guaranteed black hole.
I am going to get moving. I am going to run. I am going to meditate. I am going to create a scintillating, passionate, connected relationship with my body, in spite of the shame you have so long engraved in me.
Your words are not true; I AM worth it. I AM going to allow myself to tap into my inner warrior, creator, and leader. I do not intend to play small.
I intend to play very, very big.
I will stop trying to label you into so many categories and subcategories that act as a semblance of control over my identity and self-imposed glass ceiling: OCD, GAD, BPD, Bipolar Disorder, Dysmorphia, PTSD, Excoriation Disorder, Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder, blah, blah, BLAH.
I intend to no longer intellectualize and self-harm as baseline defense mechanisms. I vow to only use these terms to educate and advocate for mental health awareness and de-stigmatization of mental health care. Much like picking up my Queer Vegan Feminist flag, I will wave these flags of my mental health conditions until they are no longer needed, until the societal norm is inclusion, acceptance, and understanding.
I vow to get up out of my chair, that I land in every night and fall asleep in, and take action; and not give in to feelings of exhaustion, defeat, surrender, and mental death.
I will re-define what recovery means. I will re-claim what being in the moment means. I will set myself free from pain and nothingness. I will open up my heart again, and soothe the tearful, weary, tender spots that are fearful it will all be a mistake. But I will open it up in ways that feel safe and comfortable to me.
Dear mental illness, I look at you like Magneto in X-Men. I have compassion for you, and I understand where you’re coming from. And there’s no “but”. I just do. We are one in the same. I’m not saying I’m any Professor X or Storm. I look at myself as a Wolverine. As a Jean Grey in her Phoenix form. Containing both extremes, and having one foot in both sides. Fusing the two. Forging that middle. Not fighting them. Accepting them. And using that forged line down the middle as my path.
I have to believe that Spirit created my soul for a purpose, and I believe wholeheartedly that this is one of them. I was meant to be created with these “conditions”. They were instilled in me for a purpose. And like Edward Scissorhands, whom I mentioned in my last post, I will use these often-feared blades to create beauty and uniqueness.
I don’t know what has been harder. Having “mental illness” or living among humans. It may sound strange to some, but I know there are those who get it. I prefer to think of myself as having quirks and a sensitivity/connection to deeper frequencies that are often invisible to the naked eye. I have to revere that.
Much like Two Spirits are revered in Native American culture, yet have historically been brutalized in the non-indigenous Western culture, I think there is a deeper, spiritual meaning in the experiences that those of us with mental “illness” have had. And that helps. Having a sense of connection and meaning helps. Whatever that looks like, whatever that means.
So dear mental health, I intend to use you for good. You can bring it. Let’s play that game. You want to cause fire? Out for a run I’ll go or out comes the ink and paper to flow. Transmutation baby.
So that’s my decree to you. Welcome, instead of denial. Embrace, but not drown. And transmutation over a white flag. We are one in the same, and we are all part of this circle, of this home of a body and web of a mind. We have de-constructed this home; now it’s time to re-build it stronger that ever.
And one last thing. I accept you as you are, all of the moving parts, even the ones I absolutely hate. I accept the losses of battles to come, but I do not accept any kind of defeat for the overall war. Let’s coincide, you and I.
I’ll walk the line.
My name is Kristen, and I will not be afraid.
“I exist as I am, that is enough”
It’s something I say to myself over and over again. It’s something I have tattooed on my body. It’s a gentle reminder that I am worthy of love, acceptance, and happiness just as I am.
I practice self-love frequently through positive affirmations, empathizing with myself, and practicing gratitude for myself and my body. Without these practices, my depression wins. But sometimes, at the end of a long day, I walk through my front door feeling less than, drained, and definitely not enough for anyone. I sit on my couch and run through the day in my head- wondering what I could have done or said differently. More often than not, there are tears involved- tears that represent feelings of shame and disappointment. Tears that allow for me to express myself when I don’t have the energy to do so any other way.
As a professional, I’m constantly searching for areas of growth. I want to see everything, talk to everyone, form relationships and connections that better me as a human and sharpen my skills as a therapist. I want to help people. I want to remind people of their strengths- help them get to know the parts of themselves that they lost or haven’t been able to tap into. Sometimes, I fall short. I’m learning how to accept that and still view myself as being enough. It’s defeating to feel as though I’m not providing the care I know my clients deserve.
Sometimes I’m tired. Sometimes I’m frustrated. Other times I’m consumed by paperwork. I’m human. I get overwhelmed, overrun by grief and sadness, and unsure of what to say or do. Sometimes I’m triggered while working with a client and I have to find a way to ground myself and continue on with the session. Countertransference is real, folks.
In the moment, I feel crappy for experiencing my humanness. Sometimes, the crappy feeling lasts for the rest of the day/week. I’m hard on myself- I’m very aware of that.
When I’m having one of the nights that I mentioned above (sitting on my couch, tears flowin’), I can feel myself start to spiral. My thoughts start to wander. Am I good enough to be a therapist? Maybe I should have taken this class instead of that one. Maybe I should have focused on sharpening my clinical skills more. What did I do wrong then that has led me to feeling like this now? So on and so forth. How am I supposed to help someone reach their self-identified potential when I can’t even reach mine?
How am I supported to walk with my clients through the trenches? Am I doing them justice? I begin to wonder if someone who struggles with self-worth is fully capable of being an effective therapist.
Here’s what I remind myself of whenever I am flooded by uncertainty:
I don’t have all of the answers and that’s okay. What I do know is that I’m not afraid to admit my faults and share them with others. The possibilities are endless as long as I continue to check in with myself and find the strength to move forward even when I’m lacking in the self-love department. One thing I do know is that running doesn’t work for me. Here I am, standing as tall as I can with an open mind and heart.
I exist as I am, that is enough.
As always, thank you for reading. I’m wishing you all love and light.
It was last Tuesday when I had an emotional breakdown in my supervisor’s office.
I had just come back from transporting one of my team’s most challenging clients, and on the way back, another client detonated a full-out verbal thrashing into my ear over the phone. Those of you who work with high-risk clients know: we get called every name in the book.
And in that moment, it was just too much.
I literally had tears in my eyes as I was on the phone with this client because I felt so hurt. Being called a fucking cunt, the fucking devil, a worthless piece of shit, among other things, just hit every tender, insecure button I had in me. And after a while, I just sort of dissociated- just a little- and gave up. I just let this client keep yelling, and I said nothing.
I let them have it out. I let them have at me. Like target practice. Like a doormat.
I was so mentally and emotionally exhausted from the first client that day- not to mention that it had been an especially busy week in general- and my mental/emotional threshold had simply been maxed out.
In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, I began a new job recently with a completely different level of clients than I had previously worked with for the past eight and-a-half years. I work with people who are chronically homeless, have severe, pervasive mental illnesses, and usually a long-term polysubstance addiction. Not to mention complex, deeply saturated trauma histories. And as much as I understood where these particular client’s behaviors were coming from, I just felt paper-thin, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
So I walked into my supervisor’s office and awkwardly blurted, “Do you have a minute?”
Then the waterworks came. And not the cute, glazy-eyed ones; I’m talking awkward AS FUCK, heaving sobs- the ones when you’re sharply, breathily inhaling words that you’re attempting to say out loud. I was absolutely mortified.
Thank goodness I have an AMAZING supervisor who is actually trauma-informed. Her response was to omit empathy, kindness, and support, not to mention the fact that she didn’t look scared, disgusted, frozen, or annoyed. Instead, she helped me process where my response was coming from. This ultimately led to me saying the things that most employers would recommend you never utter aloud...especially to your boss.
“I just feel like you hired the wrong person.”
“I don’t know if I can handle this.”
In response, she told me that she did NOT think she hired the wrong person and that she, instead, was wondering what made me think that. She told me that I had to give myself some time, seeing as that I was transitioning to a completely different population in a completely new role and that it takes time. She asked me what I thought specifically triggered those thoughts and if it was certain statements this client said.
She even told me that she still has breakdowns sometimes, and that she will still cry to her supervisor too, the last time being last week!
I was SHOCKED.
How could this experienced, level-headed, respectable, intelligent professional experience these things? That should only be something a naive and total NEWB like me does. Someone not as smart. Not as experienced.
Not as “tough”.
Not as tough, i.e. “too sensitive”, “soft”, “naive”, “weak”. Not as, AKA not enough.
And that’s when it dawned on me. I’ve always felt “not enough”. I’m always trying to prove something to someone else. Even if that means telling little white lies. Even if that means my own health is put on the line as an expense. And I usually pay with it.
I don’t really know where this feeling of not being enough came from. It’s definitely a belief that is heavily tied to, if not entirely bred from, my anxiety and depression. It often seems linked to my anxiety, because the antecedent to that thought is usually what if I’m not enough? What if I’m no good at this? What if people judge me? It’s so anxiety-based!
I have mixed attachment styles, including with myself. I question myself almost all the time, and the questions tend to birth full-blown monsters of doubt, paranoia, and persecution. It’s exhausting.
The truth is that one of my ultimate fears is that I’m weak. Yet, I didn’t come from an ancestry of “weak”. I came from warriors and survivors. And I fear I won’t amount to them.
So when I think of clients (and staff I supervise) and my role as the person that’s supposed to help them, maybe it’s my own expectation(s) of what I’m supposed to do. Or who I’m supposed to be.
If I’m not helping you and you don’t need me, then who am I supposed to be?
I’ve gotten so used to having clients- PEOPLE- come to me for help healing from their trauma, who are in the mental headspace of knowing, let alone wanting, therapy. And the clients I have now? Most of them are in the pre-contemplation stage; the world has wronged them so much that they easily view people like me as part of who’s out to get them. It’s still trauma-based, just not in an obvious way.
Maybe when the roots of clients’ behaviors aren’t obvious to me or known to them, my own power feels challenged, and I don’t know what to do with the unknown. Maybe that’s when I don’t feel like I’m enough.
And I honestly think this touches on my own past history of feeling powerless. In my childhood when I would feel powerless to help, specifically around violence, I would just sit, stare, and cry while hiding.
I would dissociate. Because, really, what more could I have done?
All of these realizations right now are 100% being realized in this moment as I’m writing this, and it’s a trip! I had to process through all of the high-falutin stuff to get at the meat: being around volatile, disruptive people triggers my own childhood freeze and surrender response. You guys, I was not expecting this just now. Shit man.
So there it is. It’s not about the clients. It’s about me. Well, it’s a little to do with the clients- I have to give myself the grace of acknowledging the challenge of working with people who have so many challenges. It’s only natural. But it’s also about this blending with my own unresolved feelings of not doing enough or being enough to stop what’s coming, or what’s already happening.
There are parts of me, bigger parts than I want to admit, that are still that little kid. And it’s okay that she still needs healing. It’s okay that I give her space to do that. It’s okay that I’m human.
In the words of one of my favorite characters, Edward Scissorhands, I’m not finished. And that’s okay too. Thank goodness I’m not! Otherwise, there wouldn’t be anything more for me to learn. And I would likely be so complacent and bored out of my mind!
My supervisor said that there’s a reason for the term growing pains. Growing hurts. Maybe the muscles in our limbs don’t twist and transfigure, but the neurons in our brains certainly do. New connections, new emotions, deeper ways of thought, the works.
I don’t want to be the person who always plays it safe, I want to be the person who is fearless. And yeah, there’s still a part of me that wants the fearlessness for selfish reasons, and there’s part of me that definitely enjoys playing it safe. Again, all okay. All human.
What’s been helpful for me throughout all this has been to know I had safe people to talk about it with, who I knew wouldn’t judge me or minimize my feelings. My supervisor was one of them. And Natasha was the other. It’s nice to have someone who understands that not only does the feeling of not being enough come up, but who also understands what it’s like to experience this WITH emotional dysregulation, ruminations, and chaostrophic, all-or-nothing thinking!
I HAVE to acknowledge those things, because they’re part of my mental health condition, and I won’t get better if I don’t accept that they impact how I experience the world. I still have more growth to do, and I know there will be more growing pains to come. But I know now- thanks to this blog!- that I DO have power over one thing at all times: how I speak to myself.
I can choose to be kind to myself and not be The Judge. I may not be able to control what emotions come up or how my client felt or reacted, but I know now that I can absolutely choose what I tell myself in those moments. I can choose to reframe. I can choose to empower. I can choose to switch my thought from I am a worthless DUMBY of a supervisor who knows jack-shit to DAMN, I’m a badass for making it through that!
I can also change how I perceive what’s happening in the moment. With the client I was talking about before, my mindset was about ME, MY feelings, MY reaction. It turned inward, and put ZERO attention on noticing what my client was doing. I’ve said it to interns I’ve supervised hundreds of times, and now it looks like I need to take my own advice:
If I simply just notice how the client sounds, what the client is saying, and how they’re saying it, it becomes something to watch, instead of something to absorb.
That is HUGE for me. What someone says/does to me, or around me, says so much more about them than it does about me. And as someone who is so quick to come to conclusions and spurred by emotion, this will be so beneficial for me to keep in mind for the future. Something to notice, not something to identify with. Something to watch, not something to absorb.
I hope this helps for you too. Especially all my fellow courageous empaths out there. We can do this work. As long as we give to ourselves.
The first time I was prescribed psychotropic medication I was around 16 years old. I was seeing a therapist at the time and she recommended that I be assessed by a psychiatrist, so that’s what I did. I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed Prozac at the end of my first appointment.
I took Prozac for a little less than a year, on and off. I wasn’t the most med compliant person. I ended up getting off of it, suddenly, because I was worried about medication getting in the way of my social life. I wanted to continue partying and doing my thing. I felt like I was being held back. I didn’t notice a change within myself on Prozac and to be honest, I didn’t think anything was “wrong” with me.
I didn’t take medication again until I was 26 years old.
As a teenager, I was a hot mess (like I’ve said before, this part of my life is deserving of its own post). I can’t blame my parents for being concerned. I was angsty and determined to test my perceived invincibility. I just wasn’t concerned with my health…at all.
I’m not saying that I made the right decision when I decided to get off of Prozac. In fact, I often wonder how different my journey would have looked if I stayed on it. I try not to think like that, but it’s hard sometimes. I have depression and I’ve definitely struggled with it throughout my life. It just looked different at that point in time, which I’ve talked about in a previous post.
There were numerous times throughout my life when I thought to myself, “Is this how I’m supposed to feel?” and “Is this just how it is for me?” I eventually convinced myself that I was fine and that eventually, my thoughts and feelings would change just as they had in the past. Well, obviously that didn’t work. The more I ignored and avoided my needs, the worse things got.
Fast forward to being 26 years old. I was struggling. Actually, struggling is an understatement. I was at the end of my rope. I was exhausted. I was crawling out of my skin from anxiety and panic attacks. I was stuck in a pit of hopelessness just going through the motions and trying to survive. Eventually, I was numb and unafraid to die. That’s when I decided enough was enough and I needed professional guidance and support.
Let me back up a bit. Before I decided to get help, I spent many hours in the emergency room. I was having multiple panic attacks a day. I legitimately thought I was dying. That may sound silly to some, but for those of you who have had a genuine panic attack, you know what I’m talking about.
Heart pounding, dizziness, blurred vision, head pain, shaking, shortness of breath, sensitivity to noise and light, fear, intense urge to run. All of it, all the time.
The doctors at the ER would prescribe me anti-anxiety meds and send me home. My last trip to the ER, a doctor put me in a room and sat down with me. She asked me questions and eventually told me that she believed I was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. She took time to explain some of the symptoms to me. She guided me in the right direction and connected me to some mental health resources. I could feel how much she empathized with me. I almost felt as though she understood what it was like. There was an unspoken understanding and our interaction had a profound impact on me. I’ll never forget it.
The psychiatrist I ended up seeing diagnosed me with major depression, generalized anxiety, and panic disorder. What. A. Mouthful. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed and yet slightly at peace…? It felt nice to have some answers.
The first medication I was prescribed was Lexapro. What a nightmare that was.
I had a horrible reaction and ended up back in the ER. I was shaking, pacing around, and experiencing perpetual panic attacks. I called the nurse hotline through my insurance and was told to go to the hospital. Long story short, I was told to stop taking Lexapro and talk to my psychiatrist.
I felt even more hopeless than I did when this entire ordeal started.
“What am I going to do?”
“Medication isn’t going to work for me”
“I’m going to feel like this forever”
My thoughts about death increased and I was terrified.
My psychiatrist and the people around me continued to remind me about how many meds are on the market and how more often than not, it takes someone multiple tries to find the best match. Even though I understood what they were telling me, I was scared to try again. I didn’t want to feel that awful ever again.
Eventually, I gave Zoloft a try. I started off on a really low dosage, breaking pills in half and hoping for the best. I was so relieved when I realized I wasn’t having the same reaction to Zoloft. I wasn’t feeling better per se, but I wasn’t freaking out either. I continued to take it and work with my psychiatrist on increasing the dosage to a therapeutic level.
About 3-4 weeks in, I started to notice a change. I wasn’t needing my anti-anxiety meds as often and I was waking up without chest pain. I wasn’t staring at myself blankly in the mirror. I didn’t feel as numb and afraid. I was attending weekly therapy sessions at the time and I was doing everything I could think of to raise my baseline level of functioning.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. Medication hasn’t cured me. I still struggle, I still have panic attacks, and I still have times when my depression rears its ugly head.
Although I still experience my fair share of symptoms, I can honestly say that my current medication regimen has saved my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to pick myself up when I fall. I wouldn’t have the energy, cognitive ability, or self-esteem to wake up in the morning and face everyday life. I wouldn’t be able to work through my past traumas and experiences with grief and loss. I would be dead.
At this point in my life, I’m able to work through a panic attack and utilize grounding techniques to keep my head above water. I’m able to identify when I’m suffering from a depressive episode and act accordingly. I’m able to confide in those closest to me about what’s going on. I’m able to think clearly. I’m not in a complete fog that I can’t find my way out of. I feel something other than hopelessness. I feel alive. I face challenges and go through the ups and downs just like anyone else, but I’m doing so with my imbalances, balanced. I have a new appreciation for life, pain, and desperation.
I’m also at a point where I have zero shame about being on medication. Let me tell you, it feels damn good. If I was on blood pressure medication, I wouldn’t think twice about telling people. Why should I be ashamed about medication for my brain? I shouldn’t and you shouldn’t either.
I’m a strong, more compassionate human after this experience. I have a lot to learn about myself, but I’m taking it one day at a time. I’ve been humbled to my core, that’s for sure. I hope you read this and find yourself filled with hope because I mean it when I say, it can get so much better. It takes work, but it’s possible. I had to put my ego and people’s opinions to the side and follow my gut. I’m doing what’s right for me and putting myself first.
I’ve taken a personal pledge to help end the stigma surrounding mental health and medication. Part of that means that I choose to live as transparently as possible. I’m done hiding behind a façade that depicts a life full of happiness and stability. Sometimes, I’m still a hot mess and that’s okay. I’m human, you’re human, and we’re just trying to figure this all out. I’m choosing to talk about things that people may find taboo. I don’t find any of it taboo anymore. Instead, I call it real fucking life.
Anyways, now I’m ranting. Thanks for reading this particular post, it sits really close to my heart. As always, your support doesn’t go unnoticed.
Wishing you all love and light.
The first time I got on psychotropic medication was sophomore year of college. I can’t remember what prompted it (which sucks, but that’s the way it goes), but I’m sure it was some cold, sterile psychiatrist whom I didn’t know longer than 15 minutes who prescribed them to me. The medications were called Celexa and Ativan.
Celexa (aka Citalopram) is a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) that’s used to treat depression. Ativan (aka Lorazepam) is a sedative often used for anxiety and epilepsy. It was my first time owning prescribed medication for non-“physical” reasons (even though I know now that mental is physical), so I remember feeling a little awkward and unsure about having them. All I knew was that I was excited for them to start working like clockwork so that everything would be "okay".
At that point, I was skipping classes because I would get such bad social anxiety and have crying spells on my top bunk in my dorm room. I would just sob and listen to a lot of sappy playlists I’d made for Twilight (no shame!). What I didn’t know was that medication doesn’t usually work “like clockwork”, nor that it usually takes time to find the right kind of medication that works for you. I just wanted to feel better, and so I accepted the written prescription paper that the strange, cold psychiatrist gave me. Side note: we really need more warm, person-centered, trauma-informed psychiatrists, so if that’s your calling, cheers to you!
The Ativan was “as needed” and to be used prior to having an anxiety or panic attack. It actually worked for me. I remember driving seven hours to visit my friend out of town for the first time, and I only needed to take one pill to come down from an almost-panic attack, which was a miracle! I didn’t know if it was a placebo effect or if it was the medication, but I was sold either way.
For those of you not as familiar with psych meds or mental health, people with anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and depression have a deficiency in specific kinds of brain chemicals, in this case: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. What SSRIs, sedatives, and other medications can help do is to increase these levels so that they’re at a stable level, thereby decreasing the effects of deficiency. It can be genetic, causal, or both. In my case, it’s both, but primarily genetic.
I have a parent, as you might have seen in our last post, who also has bipolar disorder, so I grew up seeing their medications (sneakily, I might add, without my parent knowing about it). What I didn’t know growing up was what they were or what they were for; I was just accustomed to seeing our whole bottom pantry shelf stocked full of pill bottles.
Going back to trying meds for the first time, it was...okay. The Ativan helped, but the Celexa seemed to make my depression worse. I became more fatigued and felt more hopeless. Ironically, I was taking a psychotropic medication class in college at the time, which is why it’s so frustrating now to think back on the fact that it was during this time that I decided to go off my meds. Cold turkey.
Boy, did that backfire.
I was impatient in asking for a different antidepressant, and instead of asking my psychiatrist for one, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I had been to a handful of mental health professionals, none of whom I liked very much. I’d had it with “the system”. So I just stopped taking them.
I regret that decision to this day.
If you don't already know, it is a HUGE no-no to go off your meds cold turkey. Your system integrates the chemicals into its biological make-up and needs time to ween off of them if you decide to go off of them or switch to a different kind of medication, otherwise known as "titrating". If you don't titrate your meds, your body will go into shock; it can cause psychosis and even permanent damage, which is why you always consult with your psychiatrist.
Sometime after ceasing both medications at once, I began having hallucinations of “shadow people”, which was terrifying, not to mention extremely dangerous, while driving at night back to my apartment. I felt like I was literally going crazy. And because of my medication class, in hindsight, I knew exactly what the risks were in not titrating out a medication, nor consulting with a psychiatrist first. I knew exactly what I was doing. But like many of us, I thought I was above the system, I was different. This grandiose way of thinking is a large contributor to many unsafe decisions and experiences I have had in the past and, now I know, due to mania.
The hallucinations finally stopped after a few days, and at that point, I was having the strongest mixed episodes I’d ever had in my life; I would go from being terrified and anxious, to being impulsive and manic, to sobbing. Thank god I had a friend to turn to who also had mental health disorders, but she had moved out of state, so it was all via text. I was so grateful for her understanding and non-judgment, but it was difficult not having her physical presence around.
Ultimately, the long-term impact of this decision was long-term memory loss. There are years of my life that I can’t fully account for, or that are, at least, extremely vague. Imagine when you’re deep underwater looking up at the sky: you know it’s a different place, but it’s blurry and you can’t make out the details, only the big blobs of color. That’s what most of my childhood memories look like to me. Sometimes when I’m referencing something from my childhood, I wonder if it’s real or if my brain has just made something up to make up for it. I’ve never had it tested, mostly because I’m too scared to know, but also because I'm ashamed for doing it. Even though I know the circumstances, the symptomology, blah blah...I'm a stubborn ass (again, like most of us in this field), and I pull the "I'm the exception" card when it comes to self-blame. What can I say? I'm a work in progress.
Bottom line, if you’re on meds and you don’t wanna be anymore, CONSULT FIRST. The short-term discomfort is better than the long-term regret.
Nine years later, last October to be exact, I decided that I needed medication again. I was going through a very unhealthy, impulsive relationship, and my anxiety had skyrocketed. Luckily, I had a supportive therapist and a lovely doctor who listened. I had a trusting relationship with both of these providers, as they had been with me for about one year. My therapist had pushed me through recovery, and, in doing so, we both learned about my multiple diagnoses. My doctor and physician's assistant had both helped me heal from an unwanted sexual experience, which had coincidentally led to discovering (and thankfully removing) a large ovarian cyst. It’s weird how life happens sometimes.
My doctor prescribed me Paxil (Paroxetine), another SSRI, that she thought would be a better fit for me and my history. And low and behold, she was right! There were some minor, temporary side effects for the first few months, including some esophageal spasms and dry mouth, but the anxiety actually went away. I initially thought, Well, how do I know it’s the meds? It could just be that I broke up with the asshole, and that’s why the anxiety went away. I didn’t know what to think for a while, except that in the first week, I felt results. Now, a whole year later, I know that I do not think or feel the way I used to, in terms of anxiety-based symptoms that had been present my entire life. This has been what’s confirmed my acceptance of my medication.
I still have qualms from time to time about medications, and that’s okay. It’s not that I don’t believe they work, because I 100% do. It’s that small part of me (which continues to get smaller and smaller) that wishes I could be like people who don’t need meds, who don’t have chemical imbalances...who haven’t experienced trauma. But I need medication to function in a way that allows me my best chance at living fairly, with my fullest capacity. And that’s okay.
My next step is potentially trying a mood stabilizer. Something I learned later on is that as much as SSRIs help with depressive and anxious symptoms, they can actually bring out mania in people who have bipolar disorder. And I’ll be the first to admit- my mania has definitely been a problem the last few months. Impulsivity, substance misuse, debilitating financial recklessness...it’s been a thing, to say the least.
I’ll be honest- my fear is that it will alter “who I am”, like many people who are in the same or similar situation. I’ve seen how being on medication has already altered me. I don’t feel anxious anymore, but it’s also difficult for me to feel at all anymore. Numbness is a common feeling. It’s kind of like the idea of chemo- it kills the bad stuff, but also the good stuff. Now I’m not saying that SSRI’s kill. I can only speak to my own experience- no one else’s. Yes, my libido is significantly lower, and it’s near damn impossible for me to cry (for the good and bad feels). But living in a constant state of terror, feeling judged and ostracized by everyone around me, and thinking that the people I love the most are going to DIE all the time? Nah, #sorrynotsorry. I can’t put a price on that. And for this price- I’ll take it.
I remembered the first time I realized I wasn’t living the way I used to. That time, I did cry. I cried out of utter happiness, relief, and of grief- mourning how much I’d fought to get to that point. It was surreal.
I’m getting new insurance soon, so it’ll be a minute until I can get assessed for a mood stabilizer, and, in the end, it’ll be my decision. I know that the mania has become a hindrance in my life- I can own that. I know that it’s time. And it will still be my choice in what I do to address this. I’m so grateful to have the support I do, not to mention health insurance. It makes me think of how many people are uninsured who need medication too, and it breaks my heart how difficult it is to get access to basic care. I guess that’s why I’m a social worker.
Getting assessed for medication is absolutely your choice. And there is ZERO shame in needing it. Just like there is no difference and no actual magical line between being 17 and turning 18, there is no difference and no magical line between your head and the rest of your body. You would never judge someone who wears glasses to see. For those of us with mental health conditions, we may need medication “to see”.
Your neck is not a wall. Your head IS part of your body. Your brain IS part of your system. Denying that is denying who and what you are, not to mention a result of centuries-old fear, misinformation, and historical ignorance (Salem Witch Trials, anyone?). The truth is that you consume more “man-made” chemicals in a bag of chips and the beer you chase it with, than in a psychotropic medication that is composed of chemicals you already naturally make in your brain; I just don’t make a stable amount.
And no one’s mental health is the same; all of our experiences vary. For instance, just because someone can manage their anxiety with weed doesn’t mean it works for everyone. I recently found out that weed triggers panic attacks and surges of anxiety for me; it’s not for everyone, and it's certainly not about "being in right headspace", as some people might retort. 'Cause lemme tell you: it's chemical and ain't got nada to do with voluntarily shifting your cellular structure into a "better" one. Some substances (and activities for that matter) are not strong enough and other things are not meant to interact with the chemicals we already have. AND THAT’S OKAY.
Yeah, I hate needing help. I always have. And my parents raised me with the mindset to do things for yourself, but you know what? This is me doing that. I’m making things happen that could not happen if I didn’t ask for help. That’s me taking care of business. For me.
I don’t judge you if you don’t want to go on meds or if you’re not ready to go on meds. No one can tell you what to do but yourself. I’m as stubborn as they get, so I get it. Trust me. If medication is something you think you may need, but are scared and/or resistant to, I just want you to know three things:
Let’s tackle the stigma. Let’s not pill-shame. Let’s not compare. It’s been a journey with going on medication for me, and it’s been chalk-full of learning experiences for sure. Talking with other people who are either also on meds or have questions about them has been the best part. I will always remember one of my good friends coming up to me and asking me about medication because they were thinking about it after a lifetime of debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. Those are the moments I live for. Because in those moments, people don’t feel alone anymore. And neither do I.
I didn’t think there were any dots to connect until recently. I never realized that some of what I was experiencing throughout childhood and adolescence was linked to my anxiety and depression. It’s interesting now to look back at my experiences with a different lens- a lens that allows me to view my symptoms with a deeper understanding and a whole lot of empathy.
From a young age, around 8 or 9, I would wake up for school and be hit with unbearable nausea and lightheadedness. I remember sitting on the bathroom floor, crying, and telling my mom that I was going to be sick forever. This happened almost every morning for a while- I don’t remember for how long exactly. I do remember that when I would go to school, I would almost always go the nurse’s office complaining of the same symptoms. I remember it getting so excessive that the nurse called my dad and asked him what I was eating every morning for breakfast and if I was getting enough sleep. Obviously, with time, the symptoms either went away or changed form. I never thought much about it until now.
As an adult whose anxiety and panic attacks trigger intense somatic symptoms, I’m now able to put the pieces together. That unbearable nausea and lightheadedness as a child was my anxiety manifesting in a very physical way, just as it does now. I remember the intense fear that would come over me while on the bathroom floor. I remember the embarrassment and shame that I felt in my classroom every time I got sent to the nurse’s office. It’s identical to the shame I felt every time I had to leave class while in college because of my panic attacks. I remember the intrusive thoughts that would replay over and over again in my head. It’s all so clear to me now because over the last year and a half, I’ve been experiencing it all over again.
I also remember being really afraid of nighttime. I hated sleeping alone, so I slept with my sister on and off until I was around 13 years old (whoops, sorry bout it). I remember waking up in the middle of the night sweating and gasping for air on numerous occasions. I wanted to have someone close to me so that I didn’t have to experience it alone. Now, I know what it’s like to wake up having a panic attack and I’m able to see that I started experiencing them much earlier than I originally thought.
I could go on and on about how my symptoms have manifested throughout my life, but I think it’s important to mention how I felt as an adolescent. Granted, some of my behavior during this time stemmed from the fact that I was a teenager filled with angst, curiosity, and a sense of invincibility. Honestly though, I was sad. I was really sad and I didn’t know how to effectively express myself at the time (I still struggle with that sometimes). So, instead of being sad, I became an overall angry and negative person. I wasn’t always that way, I had tons of fun and so many good times. I just remember listening to The Used (still love them oh so much) and feeling like they were the only people that understood me. They understood what it was like to feel everything so deeply- love, heartbreak, pain, frustration, happiness, excitement, and uncertainty. During my teenage years, I faced depression more than anything. I don’t remember feeling particularly anxious, but I do remember feeling like sometimes, life wasn’t worth living. (In order to do this time in my life justice, I’ll need to write about it in a whole other blog post. I’ll get to it at some point).
It’s confusing to have those thoughts at such a turbulent age. I often wondered, “Is it just my age or is something wrong with me?”
Little did I know I would end up asking myself that same question over and over again.
Acknowledging and writing about these patterns that I’ve noticed throughout my life gives me hope. It gives me hope because no matter the symptom, feeling, or thought—I SURVIVED.
I’ve survived it all. I’ve come so far. Just as my symptoms have changed, so have my coping skills and support systems. I’m stronger than ever, but most of all I have a deep appreciation for my new and improved baseline.
I’ve come to realize that my life is worth living. Now, let me share something with you—IT GETS BETTER. Your life is worth living. If it doesn’t feel like it’s worth living right now, don’t forget that things change. Our thoughts, feelings, and situations change. Our capacity to grow and transform is endless. This isn’t it for you, just like all the shitty moments in my life weren’t it for me.
With so much love and gratitude,
Mommy is dead.
I’m inside of my pink and purple Lion King sleeping bag during naptime, and the all the lights are off in the classroom. The inside of my sleeping bag is a velvety pink, and repeatedly traced with my right index finger over and over and over are the words Mommy is dead. Mommy is dead. Mommy is dead. I’m five years old. And my mother wasn’t dead, nor was she in danger of dying.
This is the first memory I have of abnormal anxiety. I say “abnormal” because everyone experiences anxiety to some degree in life; it’s a normal emotion. What’s past “normal” is when it’s felt in situations that don’t have any inherent threat, to the point that the anxiety is not based in any current, here-and-now reality. But it is definitely based on something real: sometimes it’s purely the hereditary chemical imbalance, sometimes it’s a trigger for past trauma, even if it’s purely generational or historical.
I was always a shy kid growing up, and I had severe social anxiety. I found it utterly impossible to socialize with other children my age, so much so that I remember staying in the adult service at church with my mom because the thought of going to Sunday school with the other kids was absolute torture to me. I often felt ostracized and bullied and just...not “like” them. In the adult service, all I had to do was face forward, sometimes stand, and be quiet. And that felt safer to me.
I remember being very very young, no more than nine I’d say, and staring fixatedly at my hand while I forgot what and who I was. My mom said she would find me just staring at it while sitting, looking both captivated and lost. I don’t know how long I would sit like this, but I distinctly remember that, if done correctly, I could forgot all earthly affiliations, most noticeably the word human. I didn’t know what species, or even substance, I was, and what the name and/or sound was for that. I swear I’m not making this up, and there were definitely no psychedelics involved; I can tell you that. Was it Enlightenment? Worldly plane-splitting? Dissociation? I don’t know. I know what my Western education would want me to say. But I refuse to hold such an assumptive ego-centric notion. It just wouldn’t be me. I’ll stick to not knowing.
I don’t remember very much of my childhood because of a very unfortunate, very poor decision I made which consisted of me suddenly stopping my anti-depressants in college. I’ll save that story for another time, but, bottom line: do not mess with your meds. Memory loss is real.
I don’t remember when being shy and being anxious overlapped, or if there really was one over the other. I’m starting to wonder if there is even such a thing as being “shy”. I understand being bashful. It’s my belief that “shy” is the socially acceptable, alternative term for “anxious”.
I also don’t remember when my cold, cruel, lashing mood swings came crashing down, and I don’t know what was a normal “teenage” phase and what wasn’t. I don’t know. I remember having moments of genuinely believing no one understood me and viciously scribbling horrible things in my composition book, things that I can’t even utter because they are so shameful.
On the other hand, I remember feeling things so deeply. I remember drawing depictions of animals crying and running free when I was in elementary school, with words written in the corners like When will I be free, I don’t want to hurt anymore...and so on. I remember seeing a picture of a bunny crying as it was having makeup tested on it in my Zoobooks magazine and crying for all of animalkind, for what we had done to them. I remember, flash forward to seventh grade, lying on my bed with Linkin Park’s Opening track from their Reanimation album playing on repeat while I cried for an hour; there were no words, only music.
I remember feeling left out and unimportant in high school, even though I had a very rare, very special close-knit group of friends whom I considered my tribe, not to mention a family who loved me fiercely and steadfastly. It mattered. But it didn’t stop feelings of worthlessness, nor dysmorphic thoughts from entering and living in my mind. I remember crying on my top bunk freshman year of college in my dorm room in between classes. If someone had asked me why, I wouldn’t have been able to tell them. I remember feeling SO MUCH. I didn’t know what to do with it. Enter self-loathing, shame, and generational Catholic Guilt. College was when I had my first panic attacks (that I can remember at least- who knows?). These were influenced by feelings of isolation, paranoia, and bullying by my peers (who, coincidentally, were also in my MSW program..."disappointed" doesn't even begin to cover it).
The mania was productive in high school and college. Without even knowing what “it” was, I channeled it through visual art and musical endeavors. I took up flute, guitar, drumming, painting, sculpture, you name it. It fueled some of my greatest creations. And that’s the thing about mania: when it’s a “good” high, there’s nothing else like it. And, once again, is it mania? Or is it the Great Spirit working themself through me? Is great, obsessive, crazed preoccupation of thought toward a central idea or theme normal? Is there such a thing as normal? You guessed it. I don’t know either.
I have so many "I don't knows".
The “bad” highs and dangerous behavior came out starting in grad school. When feelings of severe social anxiety, worthlessness, isolation, and self-disgust came at me hard, I drank. I drank to focus because it calmed me down. I drank because it made me feel like I could function at what others may have called a “normal” level. And I drank to be able to attend social events with my peers and feel like I could know how to socialize. Everything worked except for the dangerous parts. Thank god I’m alive. Really. I'll explain more another time.
The overspending and impulsive behavior came out at or after that time. Spending binges that would wipe out my savings, and thank god I lived with my parents, otherwise I would 100% be homeless. And the last time I wiped out my savings on meaningless shit? About two months ago.
It’s an ongoing thing.
That’s the thing about mental health recovery. Re-covery. It’s constantly re-defining, re-formulating, re-turning, re-cycling, and re-evaluating. It’s never really gone. So that’s when I decided to use it to re-late. To be honest about my fight. Not to waive it like a trophy or a brag or a pity party, but as a message of, “You’re not alone.”
So, to you, dear reader, you who reads these lines, you are not alone. I genuinely understand what it feels like to be a ghost, to believe you’re a worthless piece of shit, to be ashamed. I’ve been there. And I’m not going to lie and pretend I’m this put-together, “I’m so wise” bullshit person; I still fight these feelings every day. Albeit, they’ve gotten a hell of a lot better. And a lot of that has had to do with finding the right people, allowing the people who love me into my head, and living through experiences that have taught me what I never want to feel ever again.
Connecting the dots has been scary, mortifying, saddening, interesting, and freeing, all at the same time. And what I’ve found to be the most helpful? Having people to talk to about it with. And that’s where you come in.
To you, me, us, and all of our dots, connected and unconnected, here’s to us.
There’s a chance you may have stumbled upon our website. If so, there’s a really good chance that you read our first blog. So, now you know. Maybe you struggle with your own mental health. Do you feel/find yourself thinking/saying “me too” when you read our blog? Maybe we fight for our happiness alongside each other without even being aware of it. That’s the point of all of this- to spread awareness, to sit with our vulnerability, to focus on our connectedness. To call upon what makes us human in order to find comfort in our shared experiences.
There may be a part of you that is unsure of how to interact with me given the knowledge that you have. Maybe a part of you is curious. Maybe a part of you is worried or afraid. Even though we’re in the mental health field, that doesn’t mean that we’re all comfortable with transparency, especially among co-workers. Whatever you’re thinking and feeling about me is okay. As you get to know me, your thoughts and feelings may or may not change. You may even want to engage in a dialogue about my experiences or about your own. I’m fine with whatever you’re comfortable with and I support you.
I want you to know that I hid for long enough. I said I was “fine” and that I was “just tired” over and over again to the point where I started to believe it. Isolation became my specialty along with counting down the minutes until I could rush home and lay in bed. I was driven by fear and uncertainty. Will I lose my job? Will people shy away from engaging with me? Will they understand? The more I engaged with my thoughts, the deeper and deeper I sank.
I now realize that my anguish was anxiety-driven and fueled by insecurities. At this point in my life, my need for transparency and connection outweighs my fear of being ostracized. I’ve come up with a few points that I want to remind you of:
Lastly, I urge you to pay attention. Notice what’s going on within you and around you. If you are struggling, it doesn’t mean your professional career is over. At a certain point, you can harness your experiences in a way that allows you to be a more thorough and empathetic clinician/supervisor/etc. You can use your experiences, thoughts and feelings to guide your practice in a way that inspires not only you but the people around you. You are not alone.
I feel you fighting. When you come out to eat your lunch, you talk about what happened in the news and what this idiot said and how ignorant and wrong it is and how much the world has gone to shit. You talk of fighters and proclaimers and justice-makers. I see you. But I also see pain under your anger. Pain that was never cared for or acknowledged, not in a good way. And although sometimes what you say feels like a blade, I know this is just how you’ve survived in the only way you know how: to fight.
I used to be like you.
I used to think, if I don’t know who to fight, then I don’t know who I am. But fighting takes a toll, and there are only so many battles you can take on before you actually become the thing you hate: hate. And I know you are so much more than that.
I hear you minimizing what you witness in the room. I hear your clients crying during your sessions, breaking their bones so they can re-set them again. And yet, when you’re in our meetings, I hear you talk about cognitive distortions and PCL scores and re-direction. But where is your humanity under your intellectualization? I know it’s there. I want to believe that you are present and kind with your clients, that you honor them and grieve with them. And, above all else, sit in the room unafraid, with their pain palpable in your chest and not try to “fix” it. I hope you know that it’s not weak to care. That it does not make you a bad therapist to weep or feel an ache; it makes you a better one.
I hope you know that empathy is the most powerful intervention you will ever use.
And all the other stuff, the theories, the science, the evidence-based practices- that’s merely a filtering system to ensure that your heart is strong enough to go through all those hoops and make it to the other side just as strong, if not stronger. That way, you will have earned the privilege of even being considered to bare witness to someone’s story. It’s your heart that’s your strongest tool.
I see you struggling. You try to brush it off, but I know it’s there. The way your eyes dart from side to side to keep from crying, the way you have to pause to take an intake of breath between sentences to ease the anxiety, the way you crack a joke so the topic is changed. I know you have a story. I do too. You got into this field either because you’re trying to correct what you didn’t get, to compensate for your lack of power by quantifying symptomology, to save the world with your own two hands and make it right, or, in some cases, simply because you are answering a call that you’ve felt since you were young, to serve those who need love above all else. Whatever your reason is, I see you trying to hold everything together when, inside, everything is falling apart and being held together by a thread.
But you can’t hold on alone. And now you don't have to anymore.
And to all of the people who work around you who don’t ask how you are, with the genuine intent of being present with you, I want to say shame on them, but what it really comes down to is have compassion for them. They can’t see beyond their own world. And that comes from somewhere, but it certainly does not mean you are invisible. I see you. And I’m always here for you. I won’t be scared. And, eventually, you won’t be scared too.
I taste your discomfort on my tongue when someone has the courage in a meeting to disclose their emotions and countertransference with their clients. I know that taste, because it’s the same iron flavor as cortisol. You’re scared. It’s too close to home, and you need to keep things professional, so you respond with you should do some self-care. But is that really what your colleague was asking for? Or was it support? Sit with me, sit with this with me. Tell me you’ve experienced this too and that I’m not alone, and that it’s normal.
Don’t disregard their vulnerability or your feelings with some bullshit band-aid answer that aims to dismiss.
Your soul is something to share. If you’ve forgotten that we ask people to share their deepest fears and darkest secrets with us everyday, let me remind you of something very important: if you aren’t willing to break the barrier between how you view your client and how you view your colleagues or yourself, then you aren’t ready to bare witness at all. We are no different from them. And maybe that’s what unsettles you: sameness.
I smell the waft of microwaved food you’ve heated up that’s sitting in front of you in your closed office. I recognize it because it smells like mine. It’s lunch time, and you only have 27 minutes because you went over with one client and are praying to God the next one doesn’t show up, so that you can go home to numb out on Netflix. The panicked rush that you devour your food with runs at the same frequency of your heart that’s pounding in your chest, doing its best to fight off the panic attack that’s threatening to take over your body. I know you’re hiding, and it’s okay to need space.
Isolation can seem like the lesser of two evils when you fear they will judge you outside your door.
But I can guarantee you that there is at least one person who gets it. Or who is at least willing to admit that they get it. I can now say that I will be one of those people for you, and I know you would be one of those people for me. Because one of the most powerful responses someone can have to our struggle is "me too".
So Dear Co-Workers,
I write this letter to you to beg you to remember to touch, hear, see, taste, and smell the energies around you and acknowledge who they are coming from. If you feel someone’s anger, tell them something kind. If you hear someone trying to speak robotically, point out how powerful it must have been to sit in the room with their client. If you see someone struggling, sit down on the same level with them, look them in the eyes, and ask gently How’re you really doing? If you taste someone’s discomfort in response to someone’s vulnerability, say aloud how much courage it took to admit something we all struggle to do. If you smell a lonely meal in the next room, send that person a text with a simple Wanna come get coffee with me? :) It will change their Entire. Day.
And finally, dear co-workers, please don’t be afraid of people being real. Which includes me, us, this blog. I know what we say here sounds risky, but I also know that you feel it’s brave. So, if that’s true, then that makes you brave too, for even getting to this sentence. For reading something that might go against what you were taught in school. Please be your raw, fallible, beautiful self. Your heartbreak, your traumas, your mental health battles, your mistakes, your undiluted emotions that you’ve packed deeply away- they ALL have a place. You have a place. Here. With us. All those things are what make you have a soul.
And I hope one day you’ll take the risk of sharing it. Because at the end of the day, you have nothing to prove, only to share. Lean into it.
My mission to live transparently wasn’t always a part of my journey. For most of my life, I was stuck inside of my head, experiencing my depression and anxiety silently. My lack of support was in part due to my inability to formulate a cohesive explanation that I felt could adequately describe just how lost, overwhelmed and low I felt. I was so scared of what people would think and say about me. I was caught up in the “what ifs” and every time I tried to open my mouth, I felt consumed by self-doubt and shame.
As the years went on, I began to struggle in school, especially throughout my years in junior college (yay OCC). I could never pinpoint why I felt the way that I did, why I would sometimes feel everything, and then other times feel utterly numb. Luckily, now I have some answers that make a whole lot of sense to me, but that certainly wasn’t always the case. For years, on and off, I felt less than, unimportant and unsure of myself. My negative thinking patterns and less than ideal self-image caused me to seek out temporary fixes for what seemed like permanent pain.
It wasn’t until I entered graduate school that I realized the power that rested within my mind, heart and soul. I felt seen, heard and understood. I can attribute this change to a few significant things, but the one that stands out the most is my second-year placement where I worked as a trauma therapist. My experiences as a therapist helped shape me into who I am today. Particularly, the moment I asked my supervisor if I could talk to her alone for a few minutes during my first week of training. This moment was huge for me in so many ways.
I want to share a little bit of backstory before I continue on with what was said during our talk. Around the time that I started graduate school in 2016, my depression and anxiety were getting out of control. I made it through my first-year placement but by the time I started at the trauma center, I was falling apart. I was experiencing multiple panic attacks per day, each one more debilitating than the last. I was isolating myself because I was living in fear of facing another one of my triggers. Crying myself to sleep became the norm because I wasn’t able to overcome the heaviness that plagued my chest. From the outside looking in, my life seemed pretty awesome, and it really was. I was halfway done with my dream graduate program, I had just married my best friend, I had wonderful people in my life, the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, none of that really mattered at the time and whenever someone brought all of that up in response to my symptoms, all I was left feeling was guilt.
Eventually, I decided to get help. There is a lot that went into that, but I’ll save that for another time. I scheduled an appointment with a therapist and a psychiatrist and started down the path that I’m currently on. As a trauma therapist, I had the honor of sitting with my clients in whatever they were experiencing. I had the pleasure of witnessing the pure resiliency, strength and courage within their hearts. Every person I came into contact with inspired me to take back some control over my life. I decided that I didn’t just want to “make it” through my day. I didn’t want to continue counting the hours until I could go home and go to sleep. I wasn’t sure what I wanted or what my ideal life would look like, but I knew that this wasn’t it.
After many discussions with my husband, I decided that I would pull my supervisor aside and let her know what I was facing and working through. I wanted to speak my truth because living in secrecy was only exacerbating my symptoms and perpetuating the fear that I had carried around for so long. My hope was that she would give me tips on how to ensure that I have a healthy work life balance, especially during this turbulent time. I wanted to soak up as many tips as I could regarding how to best care for myself after each session. I figured, we’re both mental health professionals, how scary could this be? I found out very quickly just how scary it was while walking into her office. Needless to say, grounding skills came in really handy before our chat. I wasn’t afraid of her reaction because I could tell how genuine and kind she was. I was afraid of letting even a small part of my chaotic mind express itself. I was afraid I would lose control and spiral into a panic attack right in her office. Guess what? That didn’t happen at all. Instead, an awesome bond was formed based on honesty and respect.
Instead of the doom and gloom I was imagining, we had a great conversation about ways to de-stress after each session and general self-care tips. This ten-minute meeting is what ignited my journey of unadulterated honesty. It was the start of something beautiful. I began to believe that I could struggle with my mental health while being a successful mental health professional.
To be honest, I don’t really remember what I said because I was so nervous. I do remember telling her that I was experiencing panic attacks daily and that I was currently getting professional help. We talked about spacing out clients and taking time to practice mindfulness throughout the day. We discussed the power of deep breathing and spending as much time outside as possible. She thanked me for my honesty and in that moment, I felt like I got some of my power back.
I’m aware that not everyone is able to discuss their mental health with their supervisors, coworkers or peers for one reason or another. It’s not an easy task and it requires being vulnerable and open to whatever reaction may arise. I will say, life changed for the better after that moment. I feel empowered and loved. I wish the same for all of the warriors out there who are facing their own battles.
I had just come out of a session with a client. It was maybe two or three months into my MSW internship at a rape crisis center as a trauma therapist (nevermind that I had zero experience of doing psychotherapy before). I walked into the office that I shared with my co-intern (we’ll call her Sadie, who was an MFT trainee) and sat down at my desk, finding it hard to breathe. I looked over at Sadie who looked up from her SOAP notes and asked excitedly, “How’d it go??” We were still in the early stages of our internship where after each session with clients, we would ask this question; it was sweet really. I just looked at her with a nervous smile on my face, already knowing that blotchy red patches were crawling up my chest to my neck.
I said, “Do you ever feel like you can’t move, like there’s a thick vine that’s wrapping itself around your whole body and you feel like you’re wired shut?”
She looked at me and said, with simultaneously kind and shocked eyes, “Oh my god, ME TOO.”
The vulnerability that must have showed on both our faces marked the first time I can remember taking the risk of sounding like I didn't know what the hell I was doing and just come out and be honest about what I was feeling. Sadie and I went on to talk about our somatic experiences that came up when in the room with our clients and the “morbid” relief we felt that each of us felt the same way. And I have to say, that was probably the moment when I was first honest with someone else about what I was feeling. I’ll save vicarious trauma for another time, but this moment in time really sticks out to me as I began thinking about what to write.
The next moment I recall was much later, and VERY recent, only this time, the honesty would be toward my supervisees. One of my supervisees, whom you know as my lovely co-blogger Natasha, had been open about her mental health with me from the get-go; a brave, inspiring act that will always hold so much awe and warmth for me as a supervisor. Each of my supervisees, like people in general, were all at varying stages of their own self-discovery, something that had grown to be such a beautiful, open discussion in our supervision, both in individual and group sessions.
I can’t for the life of me recall what the topic was during this particular group supervision, but I remember it was toward the end of their placement. We were probably reflecting on each person’s personal and professional growth during the past nine months, and I’d always made it a point to include myself in these kinds of conversations- not as a focal point, but more so as a means to demonstrating an equal power structure and relatability instead of the “I vs. Thou” style of supervision.
Everyone was becoming emotional, as we had all grown so close and felt so at home with each other. When it came time for me to speak, with an internal shaking and raw fear of what they would think of me, I uttered:
“About two months ago, I was finally diagnosed as Bipolar.”
I went on to tell them how, without their knowledge, they- in addition to my clients- had been the main reason I came to work each day. And that my relationship with them had gotten me through some of the hardest, darkest moments of my life- including a long manic episode that left me with close to no savings left in the bank, ongoing depressive episodes that brought me down to barely showering or physically moving at all, calling off sick to work because of debilitating anxiety, a horrific breakup with someone who actually exploited and used my mental health battles against me and eventually led me to having the first panic attacks I’d had in over a year, and ending with going back on psychotropic medication that actually worked.
The response I received was overwhelming. There were tears and looks of such raw, undiluted empathy, that it almost brought me to tears myself; I was so touched. And no one- not even a little- thought any less of me.
In fact, it made our relationship even stronger.
This taught me, as I am constantly learning, that embracing the parallel process of practitioner to client, supervisor to supervisee, is so important. It could not be more vital to my growth or my practice or my soul. It reminds me that if something is a combination of brutal and beautiful that I need to do it. And maybe sometimes I get too scared and don’t, but that’s okay. I’ve never been more nervous, but I’ve also never felt more freer or connected.
It’s okay to be honest. And yeah, the reality is that some people just aren’t ready for it, and sometimes you do have to customize your delivery, or even consider delivering your truth at all. And that’s okay too. The bottom line is that it’s a choice. And I’ve been honest in situations that felt safe and situations that felt unsafe. I’m not gonna lie- I’d definitely recommend the former over the latter. But that is 100% our choice.
What’s made a difference for me is knowing where my desire to be honest is coming from. If it’s coming from wanting someone to have pity for me or gain someone’s approval or attention, then I’ve learned that it’s not in my best interest. However, if it’s coming from a place of me just being real, helping someone feel less alone, relating to someone, or just because being fake is simply too damn hard, then I’m honest. And I’m far from perfect in my delivery, but I’ve got to say- when I’m honest for the right reasons, I have never once regretted it. Ever.
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