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Walking Through the Invisible Fire

What’s going on is pretty darn bad

As you have surely noticed, a lot of things really don’t feel okay right now. And a lot of us do not feel okay about that.

I’ve been hearing from people in health care doing their utmost to save those who may not survive and those who will not survive. I’ve been hearing from people trying to secure adequate storage space for human remains. I’ve been hearing from other therapists. From people who have gotten ill and been hospitalized. From those who are losing loved ones, losing jobs, losing savings, losing health insurance, and from those feeling trapped and scared and angry.

We are all facing an enemy that uses our greatest human strength in its attack against us: our connections with others. An invisible fire is burning through humanity, and we don’t know who is aflame, who will burn, and who will pass through unharmed. The uncertainty is nerve-wracking.

You may hear people saying “Humanity got through previous pandemics, it’s not the end of the world!” Well, yes…humanity survived, but we didn’t all get through those crises. Many died. And for those who died, it was the end of the world. (At least, this world.) And the world was permanently altered for survivors and their descendants. So this event is a true threat. It makes sense to feel distress.

What our experiences are and how we are dealing with them – it’s okay

Whatever we may have already been struggling with has been exacerbated: loneliness, depression, illness and disability, social issues, financial issues, employment, relationships. Meanwhile, many of the life trajectories we were working on in the hope that they would provide us with security, stability, and balance, have been upended. Exposed as transient, fragile, or even inconsequential: careers, money, possessions, self-image, institutions, political and social dynamics. These are great losses that may leave us feeling anchorless, or make the world feel frighteningly unreal.

For many there is also a cognitive dissonance between feeling the background hum of constant threat, while other parts of life continue apace as though nothing is happening and things are normal. “When your world falls apart, some things stay in place” (Billy Bragg). This dissonance can be crazy-making too!

With all that is happening, many people are experiencing an increase in symptoms. Some new, and some familiar. Many are symptoms of depression, anxiety, or past trauma. But please know that you are not alone in this. The most common symptoms I’ve been hearing about in the past few weeks are:

Sleep issues: insomnia, exhaustion, hypersomnia.
It’s hard to sleep when you’re feeling threatened. It’s not surprising many are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. If you are sleeping more than usual, it is partly because you have so much more to process, and that is exhausting!

Dreams: increased vivid dreaming (or increased memory of dreaming), not necessarily nightmares, either. We have a lot to process lately and it’s spilling into our nighttime hours.

Impaired executive function: forgetfulness, loss of concentration, unusual time perception (speeding up or slowing down).

Dissociation: losing track, losing time, spacing out, not being present, feeling numb, feeling unreal or that the world is unreal.

Hypervigilance: being easily startled, easily woken, heightened anxiety about possible contagion and contamination.

Grief and anger: we have incurred countless losses, individually and as a society. It is not wrong to grieve losses or to feel anger about them. It’s understandable.

Guilt: This has been a big one for a lot of people! Specifically, guilt about productivity, guilt about parenting, survivor guilt, and free-floating guilt. Please understand that unnecessary guilt is a symptom of both depression and anxiety, but it’s a feeling that makes it especially easy to buy into the content, so we tend to think it’s real.

Regarding the productivity guilt: your value as a human being is not your productivity. The most important thing you are producing is someone who survived the pandemic! If you come out of this alive, and with your children alive, you did it!

This is the earliest reference I can find, but we all know this statement by now. You’re not “working from home,” you’re at home, working under a global crisis.

Furthermore, you are not obligated to somehow optimize yourself. You never have been! But this is a good time to finally understand that at a deep level. It’s an especially ludicrous expectation right now.

Many people are struggling with unhealthy coping mechanisms right now: drinking and substance use, eating behaviors, self-harm. But the first thing is to cope. To get through this day, and this night, and the next. So if you are using unhealthy coping mechanisms, instead of beating yourself up about it, allow yourself first to cope. And then start working on adding in some of your healthier coping mechanisms. All behaviors, even dysfunctional ones, are adaptive in some context. Sometimes an unhealthy coping mechanism is healthier than not coping at all.

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Future directions & hope

Listen, we don’t get to choose what arc of history we occupy, only what role we play in that arc. You are living through a historical event that you did not choose.

A lot of things are not okay right now, many of us aren’t okay with that, and it’s okay to feel that way. It’s reasonable to feel distress. We are all walking through this invisible fire, but what matters most is how well you walk through the fire (Charles Bukowski). You can still choose what role you will play.

Humans have an immense capacity to take something good and positive out of surviving even the most horrific events. Things we always heard could not be done are now being done: work flexibility, distance learning, accessibility, financial and personal support. Meanwhile, things we always heard were implacably crucial, are turning out to be not so important. Deadlines! Attendance! Fees! Work pants!

Many more people who are in a tough spot now suddenly understand that we all need support and we are all mortal. We are all vulnerable. This kind of insight can be a turning point for great change. This is a liminal space in which we can effect that change.

It’s easier to see the real rock-bottom truth from here. Human connection is still our most important strength, even without physical proximity. We take care of each other: family, friends, neighbors, community, churches, local government and organizations. Our strength comes from sharing via those systems. Power comes from the people. You are the people! So let this radicalize you, rather than leading you into despair (Mariame Kaba).

Let this radicalize how you treat others: What can you do to help reshape an inequitable system? Is there some way you can help support those who are already marginalized, on whom the bulk of the crisis falls? The illness and death, the job loss, the financial hardship, the limited access to resources. If there is to be a new normal, what social improvements do you want to help solidify?

Let this radicalize how you treat yourself: Learn that your value does not lie in your ability to produce. Learn to treat yourself as well as you would treat an honored guest, a close friend, or even a beloved pet. If there is to be a new normal, what habits do you want to bring back from this experience? What deserves to be left behind in the ashes?

Walk this invisible fire with compassion, flexibility, and acceptance. Acceptance for others, but also for yourself.  ❤

Intersectional Life Counseling and Psychology offers remote video sessions for PA residents, as well as sliding-scale rates from $70. Please EMAIL if you would like to schedule or have any questions!

Letting Go of “Unlikeability”

You Have Been Good Enough All Along – by @tlkateart
 
 
You may have recently seen some discussions about a post online stating that trauma survivors are “fundamentally unlikeable.” I hope it has not been too derailing to your healing.
 
If it has been derailing or activating to you, it may help if you can step back mentally and see the statement for what it is: a cognitive distortion arising from PTSD. It is also an expression of internalized ableism.
 
Remember, when you have feelings of depression or anxiety, your feelings are understandable and deserve compassion. AND–you also do not have to buy into the cognitions or judgments that arise from these feelings!
 
In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach talks about the “trance of unworthiness” that is engendered by trauma. This is also called “SHAME.” This kind of shame is the deep sense that one is fundamentally unworthy of love. (It is different from guilt, which is a pain from hurting someone and a motivator to do better next time.)
 
In my experience as a clinician and also as a trauma survivor, shame is pretty well universal among trauma survivors and it is easy to get sucked into. But you can remember not to buy into it. You do not have to buy into internalized ableism.
 
If someone dislikes you because you have trauma symptoms, that has more to do with who they are than who you are. If you feel unlikeable because of your trauma, that has more to do with trauma symptoms than with your actual likeability.
 
Another important aspect of this is that you do not owe anyone a performance of likeability. You yourself may want or need to be liked, for your own reasons: psychological, social, practical, or safety reasons. But likeability is not something you owe to others. You don’t have to be likeable for the sake of others’ comfort.
 
 
You are not a burden, you are carrying a burden
 
You are not a burden, we are lucky to have you
You Are Not a Burden by @tlkateart
 
 
You might also find it useful to listen to the following meditation from Tara Brach*: Healing Shame
 

(Note: Dr. Brach uses “toxic shame” vs. “healthy shame” to refer to what I would call “shame” vs. “guilt.”)

 

You are already fundamentally likeable, just as you are. ❤️

 

End white silence. Stop racist violence.

Above, Header Photo: Chuck Modi
A white chrysanthemum funeral blossom on black background
고인의 명복을 빕니다           💮               安息

Having started and re-started writing this post, I find there is little to say that hasn’t already been said repeatedly. Find the helpers. BE the helper. Check in with marginalized friends and coworkers. Survival is resistance, joy is resistance. Speak out. Educate yourself. Educate others.

But here we are again, grieving and angry, terrified and horrified, shocked but not surprised:

The fact is, until we name White supremacy, racist violence will continue. Until we name misogyny, gendered violence will continue. Until we name the obvious, overt prejudice and discrimination that feeds the violence, it will persist. It’s not an outlier, it’s a prime societal driver. Denial is complicity. Silence is complicity. Every racist and sexist joke left uncriticized has contributed to these atrocities. Every classist, nationalistic assertion left uncontested has contributed to these horrors. Every paltry excuse for violence has made room for further violence.

Speak the names of the victims. And find out how to say them correctly.

Find ways to help.

Stop making excuses. Stop accepting excuses. You can’t claim to love your neighbor while extending more sympathy, support, and protection to their murderers than to them. 💔

 

A Worldwide Traumaversary

Things are looking up, why do I feel bad?

By now it is not news that many of us have experienced mental health challenges over the past year. For most of us, every life domain has been affected in some way by the pandemic and by social unrest: physical, mental, social, professional, financial, and even existential. Even those who somehow escaped the worst of the harm have been affected. For those still experiencing loss, violence, work and housing instability, illness, or financial crisis, there is a clear reason for ongoing distress and symptoms. But lately I’ve been seeing that even those whose lives are beginning to stabilize are discouraged because they are experiencing a fresh wave of symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Many times when someone comes in with unexplained symptoms of depression or anxiety, I ask what was going on this time of year last year. And very frequently, it turns out to be a leadup to the anniversary of a traumatic or painful event: a “traumaversary.” Experiencing a resurgence of symptoms at the anniversary of an event is also known as “anniversary effect.”

As the saying goes, the subconscious may experience all times as one, but it sure keeps an accurate calendar. This makes sense from a survival standpoint. Part of trauma response is an attempt to save us from further traumatization by avoiding similar situations. The subconscious may tell us, “last time I was in this situation, something harmful or threatening occurred, so be on the lookout for danger!” Whether consciously or not, we remember situational cues such as what time of year it was, the quality of the light, the smell of the air, the temperature, what seasonal events were happening, what landscape we were in, and numerous other aspects.

What we are seeing now is a mass-scale traumaversary. A year ago we were all plunged into a worldwide nightmare that went from bad to worse, and from which we have largely not yet recovered. Contagion, social strife and violence, financial crisis, medical nightmares, and other sources of fear and powerlessness, if not outright terror. And we are still incurring losses.

You may not even realize how much you’ve been through! This mental health status chart can help you to assess how you’ve been affected. Were you feeling worse than you realized? Are you still in red or orange? Are you moving towards green?

Thriving, Surviving, Struggling, In Crisis
Credit: National Fallen Firefighters Foundation

The fact is, we have been through mass trauma on an unparalleled scale. In part because internet access has allowed us to share everyone’s moment-to-moment feelings and reactions all day, every day, all over the world. In one sense that can be good, because it validates our experiences to see others having similar reactions. But in another sense, immersion in everyone else’s trauma can increase your own trauma. Also, having to go about everyday routine as though things are “normal” can make things worse.

What can we do about traumaversary?

For any kind of trauma, recognizing when symptoms may activate is very useful. Many times we do not recognize why we are feeling bad until it’s already been going on for a while, or perhaps even in hindsight. If we know in advance that a certain time of year may be especially hard, that can help to reduce the severity. Not knowing what’s happening can make it worse.

Anticipate symptoms and stressors

What kind of symptoms are you experiencing now? When you think back, are they similar or related to what you were experiencing last year? Is there any pattern to when they occur, such as being at home, at work, around certain people, doing certain activities? Here are some common symptoms I’ve been seeing:

Discouragement: pushing so hard, for so long, and although there is hope for improvement, it’s far  slower in coming than we may have hoped.
Burnout/malaise: stress is cumulative, and it takes time and energy to heal from it. Many have not had the opportunity to recover from each day before the next day comes, let alone the opportunity to recover from a year’s worth of constant stress. It’s hard to stay engaged and interested without stress recovery.
Exhaustion: many are exhausted from unceasing exertion: physical, cognitive, and emotional. We may be sleeping a lot more, not feeling restored after sleep, and too drained to participate in our usual tasks and activities.
Impaired executive function: forgetfulness, loss of concentration, unusual time perception (speeding up or slowing down), difficulty planning and implementing activities. Not being able to “get things done.”
Dissociation: losing track, losing time, spacing out, not being present, feeling numb, feeling unreal or that the world is unreal.
Hypervigilance: being easily startled, easily woken, heightened anxiety.
Sleep issues: insomnia, exhaustion, hypersomnia. While many have gotten some relief from the insomnia of the past year, hypersomnia is still prevalent. It’s not surprising considering the cumulative stress and burnout we’re experiencing!

 

 

Find ways to support and care for yourself

Recognizing how much you’ve been going through may already be enough to mitigate some of your symptoms, because they will feel less inexplicable. This may also make it easier to allow your reactions instead of telling yourself you “should” be able to function. Acknowledge to yourself how hard this has been and continues to be! We can’t truly heal from a trauma that is ongoing, though we can find ways to cope.

Remember the basics of caring for your body:  sleepnutritionexercise, and social interaction. It’s unreasonable to expect yourself to feel okay emotionally if your basic needs aren’t being met. Go through each one and see what can be improved, even in a small way.

Also, allow yourself to experience enjoyment! Sometimes when everything has been terrible for a long time, we feel wrong or guilty enjoying anything. But joy helps us to stay mentally healthy and balanced. It doesn’t mean you aren’t serious or you don’t care about others.

Back to “normal”?

There is hope and solid progress towards restoring a robust and healthy society. But life has changed forever in some ways. Sociopolitical rifts have become stark. Lives have been lost, homes have been lost, jobs have been derailed. And most of all, safety has been lost. In truth, we are all vulnerable to illness, we are all vulnerable to violence, we are all vulnerable to want and instability, but the past year has made this truth concrete to many who felt safe before. We can’t put this back in the box. These are real losses, and if grief comes up, it’s okay to allow it.

One sure-fire approach to help restore your own sense of agency and safety in the world is to contribute to making it safer for everyone, whether that means protecting others simply by following pandemic guidelines, supporting causes that help the community, or speaking out in helpful ways. You’re still part of a living, hopeful world that many people are working on improving. ❤

 

Intersectional Life Counseling and Psychology offers remote video sessions for PA residents, as well as SLIDING-SCALE RATES FROM $72. Please EMAIL if you would like to schedule or have any questions!

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Pauline Zimmerman: Survivor Journey from the Lancaster Plain Community

Safe Communities Survivor Voices Series:                                                                                                 Thursday February 18th, Pauline Zimmerman, author

I Heard and I Saw Before I Knew

I-heard-before-I-saw-3D-cropped-sm-205x330

Interviewer: Linda Crockett, Director of Safe Communities

Register for the webinar at Safe Communities. ❤️

We All Live in the Same House

Dear Friends,

I know this is a stressful, even traumatic time for many. Uncertainty increases anxiety, and there is so much uncertainty. Discouragement worsens depression, and there are many discouraging events. Fearsome news and social targeting increase PTSD symptoms, and there are fearsome events and targeted attacks happening, up to and including violence.

So I will not say “everything will be fine regardless of the outcome.” Because there will be many uphill battles regardless of the outcome, and those in marginalized groups will be bearing the brunt of those uphill battles. The lid has been ripped off a great deal of ugliness in our society, and the ugliness will not go back into that can regardless.

So instead of saying “everything will be okay,” I will say, what really keeps you okay will remain intact despite the outcome. Because what keeps you okay, what has kept you alive so far, is people taking care of each other.

Electing supportive, fair government is ONE of the ways we take care of each other, but it is not the only way. Sometimes it is not even the most important way! Remember, power comes from the people. That means you!

You, and supportive family. Close friends. Colleagues. Fellowships and congregations. Mentors. Neighbors. Even people you don’t know personally, working to keep things together and moving: Postal and delivery workers, health care workers, grocery workers, movement members, clergy, poll workers! Thousands upon thousands of people like you are invested in keeping life going and helping others be okay, too, regardless of what happens in any election.

We don’t get to choose what arc of history we occupy, only what role we play in that arc. You are living through historical events that you did not choose. So let this radicalize you, rather than lead you into despair (–Mariame Kaba).

Survive, help others survive, thrive, help others thrive. ❤

Intersectional Life Counseling and Psychology offers remote video sessions for PA residents, as well as sliding-scale rates from $70. Please EMAIL if you would like to schedule or have any questions!

“May Her Memory Be a Revolution”

“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

 

❤️

 

Scam Call Targeting Professionals

Scam warning: caller targeting professionals, saying you missed a court date for which you were subpoenaed to testify. Lancaster County DA states two such calls reported so far.

“If you received such a call, contact the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office at 717-299-8200 or your local police department. Do not call the number back – or provide any personal information/payment.”

 

Centering Marginalized Voices as Spiritual Practice

Image: Jennifer Hosler for Messenger

From Pastor Belita Mitchell and team, Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren:

Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren ‘Black Lives Matter’ Statement

 As followers of Jesus we stand in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters enduring racial violence and systemic oppression. We denounce anti-black racism resulting in police brutality, mass incarceration, and unjust legal systems that disproportionately harm black and brown people. We denounce the evil “principalities and powers” at work in our world that seek to kill, steal, and destroy people made in the image of God. 

As a congregation we commit to doing justice and peacemaking in the way of Jesus. For the times we as a church have been complacent about the suffering of others, we confess our complicity. By God’s grace we repent and courageously align ourselves with the Spirit’s activity and the Messiah’s reign on earth. And in obedience to God we seek to set things right where every valley is lifted up and every mountain is made low. Jesus teaches us how to struggle against oppression through his example of standing in solidarity with those who were considered ‘the least’ and ‘the last’ in his society. And because Jesus affirmed that poor people’s lives mattered, that Samaritans lives mattered, and the lives of those crucified by Rome mattered, we affirm that black and brown lives matter too, and are precious to God. 

As a congregation we commit to deepening our faithfulness to Jesus through holy listening, through intentional learning, and through discerning congregational public action. As a congregation we commit to creating intentional inter-generational space where the stories of our black and brown brothers and sisters are received with love. In line with God’s upside-down kingdom, we will encourage marginalized stories to be centered while inviting those in the dominant culture to step back and be slow to speak and quick to listen. Specifically, we will make space for this congregational practice immediately after we return to worshiping together in our building.

  • As a congregation we commit to deepening our understanding of the history and present systems of racism in the United States, as well as the complicity of the western church in the legacy of white supremacy. We will study the history, our present society, and the theological implications of racism and its ties to the church. Specifically, our congregation will begin with Jemar Tisby’s “Color of Compromise” video series. We will follow that up with ongoing learning. 
  • We will grow in our understanding of what it means to be an intentionally and actively anti-racist church. Finally, we commit to taking public action because we are called to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. Just as Jesus spent most of his time out in the streets of Galilee serving and living in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable we too seek to take action that makes the Jesus story visible to those who have their backs against the wall.
  • Specifically, we commit to ongoing discernment as a congregation about what public actions, community partnerships, and organizing efforts in our neighborhood we will participate. We know that faith without works is dead and discipleship requires a love willing to respond to the suffering of others. We pray for a prophetic witness that pleases God and participates in seeing justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. 

Harrisburg First Discernment Team & Pastor Belita Mitchell 

(Harrisburg First CoB is located on Hummel St in Harrisburg’s South Allison Hill neighborhood which is comprised of the largest concentration of low-income families between Philadelphia & Pittsburgh.) ~

You can watch Jemar Tisby’s “The Color of Compromise” series too!

 

“When we truly know justice, we will truly know peace.” ❤️

 

 

*Installments of the peace-building series can be found here:

Belita Mitchell

Juneteenth: “America can never be free until her people are free”

Yes, I used the exact same title as last year’s post. Because it’s still true and more salient than ever!

In this time of critical mass, we have an opportunity to make changes at every level. Governor Wolf just declared Juneteenth a state holiday.

Time to make Juneteenth a federal holiday!

Original Juneteenth order found in the National Archives:

Some ways to help others:

And some ways to help yourself. We need you alive and doing okay!

 

❤️