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Phoenix Rising. Onbeing27.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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..img_5622.jpg

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.  After a series of challenging events, I terminated my placement within the first 2 weeks. Months later, I am so grateful for my intuition , integrity, and proud of my courage to speak truth to power. 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 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!!

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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.

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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!)

 

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How I Learned To Feel Loss and Stop Pretending to Be Ok

I’ve been thinking about grieving since a lot of my clinical surrounds loss and grieving different kinds of relationships. Every day I think about healing and naturally, I think about my own life. Ironically, my ex-boyfriend forwarded me this BuzzFeed article about sadness (I think because of my professional interests, but who knows). The article was written by author, Mac McClelland, of Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story and For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question.

It reminded me about a theme from the Girls Empowerment Group I co-lead: how we don’t learn how to end relationships. We also don’t learn how to be okay with sadness. It seems like our society has deemed emotions around break ups (or “friendship divorce”) only acceptable in the form of pop music. I love this line of her article, “Everybody knows that crying girls are silly and weak. Hysterical, and overdramatic.” I remember how pathetic I felt starting graduate school and being torn up about a guy (forget about the fact that we dated for 5.5 years).

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This scene in Bridesmaids perfectly illustrates our discomfort with sadness. Melissa McCarthy slaps Kristen Wiig around and tells her to stop being sad, though she has recently lost her job, her savings, her home, and her best friend. Often times the very same loving people trying to shake the sadness away from us and coach us to stay strong are denying our right to feel sadness, and ultimately, grow and learn from it. 

We have so much to learn from loss and grief and I’m only beginning to realize that, because for the first time in my life I’m allowing myself to experience my feelings without trying to make them go away as soon as possible. I refuse to make myself so busy and distracted and fill the void with a new boyfriend or project. I appreciate the sentiment and am certainly not wallowing 7 months later in my misery—but even if I was—it’s about however much time I need to heal. There are no stages of grief, and if you do believe i them, know that there is no set amount of time that a person moves through them. Loss and grief are best described as waves as one of my favorite teachers writes:

“But then, all of a sudden, I’ll be going about my business and a wave of grief will roll in from the depths, crash over me, and drag me back out with it into the deep waters. I welcome the grief waves; I want to feel the hole in the universe; I want to cry and miss her. I know that too soon she’ll be a beautiful and funny memory—my wild little sister who brought everyone so much joy. So I think about her a lot; I pray for dreams and visitations from the other side; and I talk often to her kids and her mate and my other sisters, so as to keep her presence vivid for as long as we can.” Elizabeth Lesser

It’s so tempting to numb, distract, deny our feelings of sadness. Who wants to feel sad?! Yet this allowing of myself to be exactly how I am has taught me the meaning of compassion. I’ve learned to be gentle with myself, kind, and generous. I’ve experienced closeness, gratitude, and joy like I’ve never felt before. As Brene Brown writes, there is a deep connection between the amount of sadness and joy we experience-you can’t numb one without numbing the other. It is actually not possible to build walls up for selective feelings, without building defences against all of them. When we build walls up, it protects us out of fully experiencing ANYTHING, and therefore we are no longer able to fully experience life!

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I’ve always been a sensitive and emotional person. I used to cry on the soccer field in middle school when my best friend would trip (which was a lot because she was as aggressive as she was tiny!) Still, I think we are taught from a young age that we should smile for the camera and not dwell in the past. My dad’s coaching on the soccer field echoe these sentiments, “No pain, no gain! Take no prisoners!” I was raised to be tough. As we get older we learn that people like to be around happy, bubbly people not the depressed, introvert.

To be clear, there are different types of sadness, as McClelland writes:

If your sadness comes from seemingly no place or even an obvious place but keeps you from participating in life or enjoying anything and refuses to abate no matter how long you go on letting it express itself, you of course can’t keep living like that.

Maybe if we didn’t live in a culture that shames us for feeling sad for too long, I wouldn’t have been so afraid of my sadness. I thought I might never feel like myself again. It was hard to remember feeling happy. Nothing felt normal and yet I was expected to continue on as if nothing had changed. Everyone else seemed to be going about their lives.

Over the years I’ve gotten better and better with “self-care,” but this experience required more attention and time. Going to the gym, meditating, and calling a friend was not going to be enough-or rather, this wasn’t going to be a “tough week” that I had to make it through. Instead of being patient and gentle with myself, I was judging myself and causing myself more suffering by agonizing over whether or not I should stay in my graduate program. Everyday I felt exhausted by the decision to stay or to go. How on Earth would I decide?

My saving grace was that I reached out for support. I knew I wasn’t thinking clearly and needed guidance. I found a therapist, I sought support from a professor, a Dean, some trusted classmates. I spoke to my cousin and friends on the phone. I let myself be loved and held, because “sometimes we are each other’s wings until we find our own. (Rha Goddess)”

I can’t explain in this coherent essay how I finally healed from my loss because I’m still healing everyday. Actually, some days I don’t think about it at all and this is how I know I’m making “progress”. My feelings are constantly changing and I know as time goes on the pangs of loss will be less frequent and eventually, I will get to a place where I can reminisce with my ex-boyfriend and possibly have a healthy friendship. I knew I was healing when I stopped feeling shame about the fact that I was still sad about the break up. A weight had been lifted and I finally was giving myself permission to feel, to be present with where I was at.

“They say it takes a big man to cry, and I think — unfortunately, given our collective feelings about sadness — that’s true. But it takes a bigger woman still, to feel the strength of a sob, without apology or shame. With pride. I’m the biggest I’ve ever been, the way I let my emotions run, sadness included: the way it cleanses me, tears washing my face, resolving me to continue to feel with abandon.” Thank you  Mac McClelland, for the reminder that it’s okay to be sad.