feelings

Uncategorized

Community-Help: Why Individualized Healing is Only Half the Picture


No Comments

I’ve been to series of sessions of individualized talk therapy four times. While the insights I’ve gained have always been helpful and moved me along my healing path, I’ve also always had strange underlying uneasiness with the process. It feels alienating to have to pay to talk about my feelings. Sometimes when I was in therapy, I felt like that meant I didn’t need to or couldn’t talk to anyone else about my feelings. I deal with some heavy things; I have a long abuse history and a lot of trauma to work through. I often feel like I don’t want to “dump” that on someone. But when the only outlet for actually talking about this stuff is commodified – a service that you pay for – there is something very lonely and suffocating about that.

Traditional individualized therapy can certainly positively impact mental health. I benefited from all the sessions I attended, and I actively encourage others to seek out therapy for themselves. However, this model of mental health care can often feel isolating. Traditional therapy, often by default, places emphasis on the expertise of the therapist and commodifies active listening and emotional literacy. Suddenly, listening to someone’s heavy feelings is something you need a master’s degree to do, and being listened to is something you have to pay for. Mental health care becomes inaccessible and out of the control of those who really need it. Unfortunately, many people really do see this as our only path to emotional healing.

I believe that our idea of healing needs to be expanded. Individual therapy, while not devoid of flaws, is important – and it’s not the only thing we need to do. There are many different models of healing which are more community-based, less individualized, and therefore more radical. They can be used in tandem with traditional therapy, or on their own.

What could alternatives to traditional talk therapy look like? Alternatives that address the issues of traditional therapy need to be de-commodified and less individualized. Hopefully, they would serve to connect participants to their communities and each other.

Deep Work Groups

This year, I had the privilege of living in an intentional community for several months. In the community, there were several different emotional work groups offered, each with a different format. One provided a place for people to have longform check-ins, talking out their feelings to a whole group of other people who would simply listen. The groups I attended were more focused on doing what was called “deep work.” Each week we came together, we would check in, and then pick a few members of the group to work on their issues during that session. As an attendee, I supported those group members, honored their requests, and helped facilitate their working if I could. Some of the people who organized the group were more experienced facilitators, and were able to guide participants through various therapy exercises and techniques, like role-playing, speaking to a younger or older self, and prompting with sentence starters. This container was available to me, the other group members, and anyone else in the community, free of charge.

This healing space had a profound effect on my life. It was in this deep work group that I learned to call my experiences what they are: abuse. Seeing other people of varying ages and backgrounds working with their own wounds was so powerful to me. It helped me feel much less alone and recognize how much of my human experience I shared with others. Getting to help facilitate the work of others was also very powerful. I reveled in the chance to grant people their requests, to ask them questions, to hold their hand when they needed it. I found that participating in this group also helped ground me in the larger community – although I was only there for a few months, I found that going to this group deepened the connections I was able to make with others.

Co-Counseling

Another model that is practiced across the country and internationally is called Re-Evaluation Counseling, more often known as co-counseling. In this model, you take a class or learn from experienced co-counselors about the practice’s specific techniques, which are designed to improve your listening and emotional support skills. You choose a partner to work with and regularly meet to practice both listening and sharing your feelings. Your work with your partner is a reciprocal exchange, meaning it is free and both people benefit. You refine your emotional literacy skills and are able to offer them to your wider community.

I have adapted this counseling practice on my own. I have a few friends with whom I share “feelings time”, wherein we exchange roles of listener and speaker and offer support to each other. This type of model has been good for me when group settings are not available, and has also facilitated deeper connection with some of my friends as individuals.

These are just a few examples of different community-oriented models of mental health care and healing that are possible. When I discovered people could use models like these, that we could make intentional agreements to talk about our feelings with each other, hold space, and create a dynamic that allowed for mutual aid rather than “dumping” and perpetual care-taking, I began to feel hope for the very lonely part of me. Although we often view emotional healing as an individual process, something you need to work on and complete on your own, I’ve found over the course of my life that this is very rarely the case. I can’t recall a time when I was able to really heal on my own, without the support of others and a nurturing environment. I believe that individual healing and self-care and drawing a path for yourself are extremely important, but I think they’re also only half of the picture. In fact, the times I’ve felt my best and healed and grown the most, have been the times where I’ve had multiple people I could talk to and share with in this emotional, reciprocal way. The times that I’ve felt valued and accepted and affirmed in my environment have been the times that I’ve felt most comfortable doing deeper self-exploration and healing.

Sometimes, when I am working through my abuse responses and need to soften my inner critic, I think about dogs who come from abusive homes. They are often very shy at first, or aggressive. But if they are welcomed into a new and loving home, once they recognize they are no longer in danger of being harmed, they often “warm up” and become open and loving again. This is how it works for me, too. When I find myself in new environments or social situations, my automatic response is often fear or suspicion, which surfaces as shyness. But once I know that I am around safe people who won’t try to hurt or abuse or manipulate me, but instead accept me lovingly and treat me well, I open up and feel safe enough to dip into my self expression.

Affirming environments are important for survivors of abuse and people with marginalized identities. Last year, during my tour with The Radical Mapping Project, someone I interviewed told me about a similar dynamic. We were interviewing a queer housing collective, and our interviewee told us they had never heard any of their housemates raise their voice at one another. Their house had a huge emphasis on practicing nonviolent communication and being a safe space for people who had experienced abuse. As a result, they told us, people often began to feel more interested in expressing and exploring themselves and their queer identities, because they were surrounded by other loving queerdos.

The thing is, I didn’t know I needed an affirming environment until I experienced it. The only way I was able to experience it was by finding other people I could share things with, who I could relate to, who could reciprocally exchange with me without judgement of my needs or identity. I went to a commune where regularly sharing feelings, co-counseling and deep work groups, and queer feminist anarchist politics were the norm. Once I had experienced this affirming environment, I knew I needed it to heal and feel good and seen. Regular talk therapy as my only outlet was no longer going to cut it.

This makes me wonder how many other people need this but don’t know it yet. Our culture has such an individualistic view of healing, but I suspect individual efforts are less effective without the community piece, and without non-commodified models of healing.

To truly heal and feel good, we need community. We need people to listen to us, and we need people to listen to! We need to see others struggle, and know we are not alone. In the behavioral health field, these needs are increasingly addressed with the peer support model. A peer is referred to as “someone who shares the experience of living with a psychiatric disorder and/or addiction.” Peer support works because of the power of seeing others dealing with the same things we’re struggling with. Often I am surprised at how witnessing someone’s emotional work or listening to someone during a co-counseling session or a check-in is just as effective and comforting as doing my own work or telling my own story. We need affirming environments where we feel encouraged to be our whole selves and open up.

Often healing is painted as this very individualized journey and objective; if you gather the tools, you should be able to make it there yourself. You should be able to be strong and get the help you need and get through it. In reality, people who are able to heal are often supported by many more people than just their therapist and their own self-care practices. In her collection of essays, Peregrinajes/Pilgrimages, Maria Lugones discusses how the individualized narrative of achievement so often focuses on the person who reached their goal and their efforts alone. She asks us to look behind that person, and see all the people who supported them to reach that goal. I believe achievement of any kind is often much more of a team effort than we are willing to acknowledge in Western society, and emotional healing is no exception.

To really work through our feelings and work towards healing, we need other people on the journey with us. Self-help is bullshit. Many of us are familiar with neoliberalism as it applies to labor and wealth inequality; why should we expect ourselves to be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when it comes to our mental health? Brianna Suslovic sums up the neoliberal undercurrents of self care perfectly:

“..the burden for care rests solely on the self. No one else is given any responsibility for checking in or helping you out with the basic things that enhance your well-being. And why not? Perhaps it’s because this kind of communal care would start to look a lot like a visible kind of resistance.”

It is important to remember that many mental health and emotional struggles are linked to societal issues. My abuse history points to the patriarchy, capitalism, and heteronormativity. Many “disorders” are at least partially socially constructed and brought on by the conditions in our society that we see as fixed and take for granted. Depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug use are all at epidemic levels in the U.S. – we can’t pretend that the mental health struggles of these individuals are not connected to larger issues in our society. There are various studies which indicate that people of color, people experiencing poverty, and women are more likely to experience mental health challenges than socially privileged groups, like white men.  All forms of oppression have mental health implications.

Unfortunately, many of us lack even basic access to mental health care. While community-based alternatives like those described above may be monetarily more accessible, they do require a fair amount of social capital and volunteer labor to set up and maintain. What’s more, they require skills that many of us are just beginning to access. Mental health needs to be taken seriously. Doing this work for and with others is something we need to prepare for with study and practice.

Setting up community mental health resources should be prioritized in radical communities. We need to be literate in emotional healing and mental health care, so we are better able to take care of each other and ourselves. We need to create networks and counter-institutions so that our only option is not clinical mental healthcare, or at least so that we have more than one modality of healing. Doing so will add to our revolution and our capacities as organizers.We need to stop viewing mental health as a purely individual concern, and start practicing ways to support and care for each other.


In terms of information, this article really just skims the surface of community mental health models and ideas. If you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend perusing the Re-evaluation Counseling website, particularly the techniques page. Brianna Suslovic’s essay “The Revolution Will Not Be Unsustainable: Drafting a Movement Strategy Handbook“, my essay “Community to Family in the Face of Trump”, Kai Cheng Thom’s “8 Steps Toward Building Indispensability (Instead of Disposability) Culture” and this interview by Sarah Lazare with Dean Spade on mutual aid are all in the same ideological vein.

If you are excited about this and want to talk to me about it, don’t hesitate to shoot me a message! My contact info is on my About page!

Lastly, thank you to those of you who support my work and racial justice organizing by purchasing a copy of my zine and following my work on Medium. Y’all help me sustain my writing practice – thank you!

Image by  Bobby Rodriguezz

Uncategorized

Understanding the Marks Left by Abuse


No Comments

I didn’t think I had trauma. I’ve been in abusive situations and rough relationships in my life, but nothing I considered extraordinary. I believed that if the immediate pain of those experiences left me, I’d be just as I was before. Turns out, I was wrong.

I’m at a point in my life where I am coming to understand how many of my behaviors and beliefs are direct results of the abuse I’ve experienced throughout my life. Finally, I’m noticing how my past trauma interrupts the ease of connecting with others, and often injects my worldview with cynicism and suspicion.

Attachment theory can explain these effects. It maintains there are various ways people learn to be attached to and connect with others. Nora Samaran describes attachment styles using a chair metaphor:

“Just like the first time you walk on ice or sit on a new chair, at first your muscles are clenched, waiting to see if the ground under you is secure or about to fall away. If the ice has always been solid, or you have never had a chair break under your weight, you may assume that you can relax quickly into your seat, or head out onto the ice and skate. You have no reason to think otherwise. If, however, you have had a chair break under you, you may think hard about sitting down again, and may take longer to relax into the secure base. If the chair has never been there for you at all, you may decide you simply don’t need chairs and prefer to stand. These are insecure attachment styles.”

My attachment style is insecure. I grew up with constant emotional volatility in my household. I was always unsure of how I would be treated. This was my early experience of love and connection.

A while ago, I was in a bookshop feeling a little lost, and I picked up a book called How to Be an Adult in Love by David Richo. I was intrigued by the subtitle: “Letting Love in Safely and Showing it Recklessly.” I soon found myself poring over it, reading passages which described love in succinct language such as I had never read it before. I realized, I don’t understand love. I don’t fully understand where the line between love and harm lies, most likely because many people who love me don’t know where this line is either.

Perhaps this lack of understanding is why abuse is so commonplace in the U.S. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million people. This figure does not account for forms of emotional abuse, and only takes into account intimate partner violence. Familial abuse and workplace abuse are also common in the U.S., and both have deep effects on survivors.

Violence pervades our culture. Abuse is one head of that hydra, along with the prison industrial complex, gun violence, rape culture, environmental destruction, militarism, police brutality, animal agriculture, and most recently on the public mind, ICE and border policies. In a country that has literally set up for-profit prisons for children, you can expect violence to flourish. Violence and abuse also pepper our histories, both collective and personal. In a country built by slaves on land stolen through genocide, it is not surprising to me that violence, trauma, and abuse are passed down through generations. I have so often heard my dad tell me stories of being knocked across a room by his own dad. Of course the line between love and harm is blurred for him. It is for many of us.

I’m working through the messages I’ve received from others that impede my ability to connect, but it’s a messy process. I’ve learned it’s easy to accidentally take my trauma out on others. Trauma can be insidious that way – it’s easy to pass it on without being aware that’s what’s happening. My own trauma-based behaviors tend to be ignoring, neglecting, and withdrawing from my relationships, and in the past I’ve also lashed out at people in anger.

I still search for intimacy, closeness, community, and shared joy. Even acknowledging that sparks fear in me, but I keep reaching. Through my fumbling and my triumphs and despairs, I wonder, how often do we hurt each other? How often do we take out our past abuses on others, and thereby pass them on? I know I have hurt and neglected people before. The best thing I can do is continue to heal, so that I may no longer pass on the abuse. It’s important for me to understand the marks that my past has left on me, and the ways I express love and look for connection. It has affected all my relationships, including the one I have with myself.

So anyway, about that book -I bought it. I’m committed to healing and learning how to love well, fully, and recklessly. One concept from the book that I have really benefited from is this:

“We never lose our power and ability to let love into our lives and to act lovingly. The capacity to love cannot be canceled or erased by our past, no matter how damaging our experiences may have been. What can be damaged are our ways of showing love and our expectations of what it should be.”

This is comforting to me. It reminds me that I can heal from these damages and form more healthy ways of showing love and expectations for it. It is important for survivors of abuse to receive this message: we are not damaged goods. We deserve love, and we are able to love, but it is a practice we must work to grow.

The abuse we endure and inflict has lasting effects on our relationships with ourselves, each other, and in our communities. It directly affects our movements by dictating how we treat each other. In recent times, I have seen a few pieces of writing decrying “toxic social justice culture.” I believe this toxicity is due in part to the fact that our movements our organized by people who are still healing from oppression, violence, and abuse. Our connections are interrupted and our movements are shortchanged because we are still establishing the emotional literacy needed to healthily deal with our trauma and that of others.

Grace Lee Boggs has a quote that I repeat again and again when I think about how I’m engaging with community organizing work. In The Next American Revolution, she writes:

“We ourselves must begin practicing in the social realm the capacity to care for each other, to share food, skills, time, and ideas that up to now most of us have limited to our most personal cherished relationships…..We urgently need to bring to our communities the limitless capacity to love, serve, and create for and with each other.”

Understanding and enacting love is an urgent matter from this point of view. We benefit from actively healing ourselves. We benefit from learning how to not take trauma out on each other. We benefit from learning to communicate, set healthy boundaries, and trust and be kind to each other. If we can heal and reach past our old traumas and stories, we can open ourselves to more connection and become catalysts for positive change and growth in our communities. Building bridges of connection can help us accomplish the work of anti-oppression politics. It can open opportunities for collaboration and understanding and give power to voices without corporate or police/military-backing. At the very least, it can enable our organizations to work well together to achieve our goals. Openness helps us. Healing is a strategy.

Uncategorized

The Revolution is Emotional


No Comments

 

I know I’m not the only person involved in social justice work who struggles with my mental and emotional health. Experiencing or witnessing the suffering, harm, and oppression embedded in every facet of our society is painful. So is responding to that suffering, both emotionally, and with action. Much of our work, whether it is internal – uprooting internalized oppression, acknowledging and navigating our privileges and blindspots, expressing ourselves in a world that demands conformity – or external – protesting, calling out institutions and public figures, speaking truth to power, providing direct service to and holding space for oppressed groups – is emotionally intensive. Even the root of our work is often an emotionally-charged belief in justice.

Many people who work in this vein suffer as a result of this intense emotionality. Burnout, anxiety, depression, and simply leaving the work behind are understandable responses to the challenges this work faces us with.

It’s important not to absorb the pain we see around us, to take on that of others as our own. From “The White Allies’ Guide to Collecting Aunt Linda” by Real Talk: WOC & Allies:

“If you are getting angry about other people’s pain, then your anger had better be serving those people, not yourself. So yes, get angry. But never forget whose anger it is. Never lose sight of the people actually experiencing that pain. Remember you are not one of them.”

People holding privileged identities (like myself) need to remember this. Taking on the pain of others as our own gets us nowhere.

It’s also very important for us to be conscious of how emotionally affecting this work can be. It’s important that we don’t take it lightly. We must be conscious of how we are being emotionally impacted, as we also grow conscious of the emotional experiences of others.

praxis-diagram-v2-1200x678

It’s important for us to emotionally check in with ourselves, and to process our feelings as part of our praxis. For example, Thais Sky and Lindsey Rae recommend that white people spend time privately processing their fragility and feelings around race issues, and reach out to other white people who can hold their fragility. This private processing makes way for more thoughtful public anti-racist work.

In other cases this may simply mean acknowledging when we are drained. Noticing our emotional needs and adapting to accommodate them is important. Part of what inspired this essay is an ongoing struggle with social anxiety and healing from trauma. Recently, I’ve been in a few situations in which I’ve had to step back from confrontational environments, and it’s been really difficult. In the past, I was always able to show up for actions and participate in public activities. Finding myself in a place where simply resisting the urge to self-isolate is taxing has been disappointing. It’s forced me to change the ways I engage with activism work, and to be understanding of my current emotional limits.

And yet, adjusting to my current needs is what allows me to stay engaged at all. Acknowledging our emotions and caring for ourselves and each other must be an integral part of our work. It’s what makes our movements and our lives sustainable.

Emotions also need to be celebrated! Coming together over our feelings – anger, grief, euphoria, or what-have-you – and creating a collective site of exploration, understanding, and bonding, is revolutionary. As Brianna Suslovic writes in “The Revolution Will Not Be Unsustainable: Drafting a Movement Strategy Handbook“, “Learning how to provide emotional support to friends impacted by executive orders and cabinet nominations is the kind of mutual aid work that is necessary right now, that sustains this work long beyond the next afternoon rally.”

Sharing and relishing in our emotionality is also a direct rejection of whiteness. As Tema Okun explains in her piece “White Supremacy Culture“, politeness, fear of open conflict, individualism and isolation, and white ideas of professionalism all work against emotionality and direct confrontation of issues (especially those which are racially charged). Openly sharing and celebrating our emotions brings these conflicts to the forefront, and frees us from the restrictive white codes of politeness.

Our organizing and our personal praxes need to hold space for the multiple dimensions of emotionality inherent in our work. Here are some ideas of what that can look like:

This is hard work. I work on this every day. Cultivating the vulnerability I need to get help and reach out to others is difficult. Building space for emotions into struggles which feel urgent and holding the ethereal complexities of feelings rather than simply evaluating tangible outcomes are modalities with which we are often unfamiliar. Seeing and supporting each other can be terrifying and draining. Navigating the new territories of radical emotionality is not easy, but it is possible and necessary.

Imagine your vision of justice, of a better world. Mine is one where emotions are valued, shared, and responded to with understanding and emotional literacy. I’m in this work because I care, because I am tender. Our tenderness is revolutionary.

With love and lots and lots of *feelings*, 

madeleine

Image Sources: 1. is a self-portrait I took while battling depressive symptoms as a result of an abusive relationship {and those feelings were/are fucking valid!!} . 2. Froebel Decade

if you enjoy my writing, please do share it 🙂 please also consider buying a copy of my zine on whiteness (a portion of the proceeds currently goes to Protect Juristac) and supporting my work via PayPal. thank you so much for reading.