Writing is medicine and has always been the only way for me to reflect and understand the passage of time. This year, I am honoring many transitions and transformations. I know writing this letter will help navigate the tough feelings that accompany this birthday that I’ll celebrate without certain people. This letter is also a gift to myself.
I hold memories of the three of the biggest hearted individuals, men I deeply admired and who we lost this past Fall/Winter. Each of them brought healing to countless individuals and I will never forget what it was like to be in their presence. I know I will continue to learn from them.
Dear 27 Year Old Me,
This year I know your birthday will remind you of the people who can’t be there to celebrate. You’re missing them. These memories are to remind you of the many gifts this year brought. This is the birthday card, only YOU could write yourself.
It’s time to celebrate your willingness to grow rather than shrink in the face of suffering. Sometimes you take the road less traveled and thought at times it’s easy to doubt yourself, try and remember how many have admired your commitment to yourself and your truth. Here’s to making the hard decision and for your ability to make meaning of life’s detours.
Two years ago, my life brought me to Smith School for Social Work. The plan was to move across the country with my roommate and longtime love. We broke up the week of my 25th birthday, and a few days later I started my 2.5 year Masters program. I learned about Freud and Melancholia, counter-transference, and parallel process. I met lots of inspiring friends. Connected with The Icarus Project. Then, I completed a rigorous and intense first year field placement working in community mental health (Shout out to any Waysiders reading this!). As a home-based worker, I faced the devastation of losing a client. He was only a child. I worked with his mother before, during, and after the tragedy. I will never forget her resiliency. I discovered what it means to bare witness and hold space for another’s suffering. I adored my clients and learned everything I need to know about building relationships from them. I practice self-care like it was a part time job. I mastered the art of The Bubble Bath, healthy eating, afro flow yoga, cultivating community, and therapy (ice cream therapy, that is). I was awarded a JUNO retreat at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies to reflect, integrate, and reset for Year 2. It was an honor I’ll never forget.
My second summer, I’ll remember as a celebration of a year’s hard work and bringing together Smith friends at my home in Northampton, as well as advocating for more support for students in the program. I was nominated and accepted a leadership position: Field Representative to serve as a liaison between students and the field office/administration.
A short time later, our community was devastated by a tragedy when a friend and recent graduate died by suicide. My friend’s suicide proved to me just how serious the stigma of being in this field and struggling with one’s mental health can be. It can be even harder to ask for help when you are a professional or trainee with extensive knowledge of mental health issues. You might think you SHOULD know better or you SHOULD be able to figure it out. This is not the case. A study conducted by my classmates found how few students felt comfortable disclosing this personal information to supervisors, advisers, or even professors. This pervasive culture of other-izing and mental health stigma is hypocritical and students must demand change to receive the support and education needed to be effective and safe in this field. More on how this impacted me further down..
In the Fall, I journeyed to my second field placement. I was put in a situation that required me to perform far beyond the scope of a trainee. This was guised in a vague terms: a “hybrid” internship for a “highly independent” student. Despite, my confidence having worked in extremely stressful/high trauma situation, I felt physically and psychologically unsafe and unsupported. I can only imagine how I would have suffered remaining in my assigned field placement. The words of the student previously placed there still haunt me: “I prayed everyday for April to come.” My concerns were not taken seriously or acted on for me to maintain any hope that I could make it work despite my best efforts. These circumstances plus traumatic events at my placement within the first 2 weeks contributed to a paralyzing bout of depression like I’d never experienced. Despite seeking supports outside of the school, something inside of me knew this was NOT okay. For the first time in my life, my body said NO and I listened. Months later, I am so grateful for my intuition , integrity, and proud of my courage to speak truth to power. I terminated my field placement, which ultimately, meant I would not graduate with my beloved cohort this summer. The shame and despair I felt at the time cannot be put into words. I don’t regret my decision and I continue to feel disappointed by the institution for not trusting and supporting me. The school teaches trainees to advocate for clients and help empower themselves. I am left wondering how could the school support supports and help them figure out what they need to be successful? I hope that my experience will at the very least inform future decisions to place students at this field site. I will deeply miss spending the summer learning and celebrating together. I appreciate the support I received, especially those who shared their admiration for my taking care of myself inspite of the pressure to “suffer through.” Look forward to being at graduation and cheering on Carmen Leah together!!
Last Spring I met a Smith alum at an anti racism event and this meeting helped lead me to the opportunity to work at Project Place. I love my new job where I continue to work with a traumatized and marginalized community. I feel supported and engaged and humbled and inspired everyday. Many other unexpected opportunities have been offered that helped me make peace with the issues at school. I received scholarships that have afforded me the opportunity to study Play Therapy course at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute and at the ARC Training at the Trauma Center ( Fostering Resilience in Trauma-Impacted Youth and Families: The Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency (ARC) Treatment Framework). Lastly, I recently took Level 1 Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy training. In June, I will begin leading workshops for survivors at the Cambridge Women’s Center. I feel such gratitude to be connecting with so many influential leaders in the field.
When I reflect back on the year I think about the fragility of our lives and the power we have and the power we don’t have to control our futures. Losing 3 friends/colleagues in the span of 3 months, I continue thinking about love and life. I wish I could have told my friend David I am here for you. I wish he could have told me how he was suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
Many people are reluctant to talk because they fear that what they will say will be misunderstood. There are people who suffer so much; they’re not capable of telling us about the suffering inside. And we have the impression that nothing is wrong-until it is too late.
I want to tell him: I want to understand his difficulties and his suffering. I want to listen to him because I want to love him. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, the language of love is asking a person whether you have understood the other person. I don’t want to wait until it’s too late to ask people I care about to share more about themselves. I wish I’d told him his presence was a gift to me and to the world. To love someone is to be there for them.
As I’m turning 27, I reflect on a long year! I learned to love again, to trust my intuition, to ask for what I need, to surround myself by people who support and inspire me, and to be grateful for so many blessings and teachers (known & unknown). Thank you for reading and being part of my life (even if we haven’t spoken in years, I’d love to hear from you!)