Entries from February 28th, 2015

Cursed Canvases

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cursed Canvas

Okay, so sometimes my painting efforts flop completely. Every so often, a canvas comes along that just seems cursed. Much like those sad locations in town that host one failed business venture after another, these canvases hold legacies of misery. This cursed canvas has been hanging around awhile, luring me into attempting various bad paintings on its surface, and here it is today, before I foolishly start working on it again. You can see the previous painting, which was also awful, behind the current layer. And even from a distance, the textured brush strokes from the prior image come through like tacky panty lines. This canvas is a Bermuda Triangle for my artistic confidence; any sense of creative self-esteem disappears the moment I start working on it again.

I should definitely throw it away, but over the years I’ve made a commitment to seeing every painting through, somehow, to an image I can live with. So, I won’t let it go. I feel certain it has something to offer me, teach me, something it will reveal, if only I keep revisiting it now and then, saying hi, and painting badly on its pockmarked surface. Since failure is inevitable, I am free to paint clumsily, weirdly, without caution. I can paint through funky energy, grit, despair, and desperation. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t found a lot of places in life to safely and freely express these energies, especially as a “professional adult.” I guess there’s always loud music and moshing, but that’s not my thing.  There just aren’t many places we are free to flail and fail.

My continued attempts here are like reserving a seat at the table for failure, for what is ugly and deeply flawed. I’m a recovering perfectionist, so this is a practice; I really didn’t want to show this to you. But who knows? Maybe eventually I can transform this canvas into something ugly but loved, worth hanging onto and possibly hanging up–not because it is a great painting, but because it bears the inevitable stories and scars behind a commitment to process.

Me Too

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Mee Too

Over the past week, I’ve given five guest talks on suicide prevention and intervention to university classes. I start out by saying that every year, approximately 10% of college students will consider suicide as a potential solution to life’s difficulties, and 1.4% will make a suicide attempt. I tell them that learning how to recognize and compassionately connect with someone who is thinking of suicide can save lives, and then I ask if they are surprised that so many college students consider suicide. To this, they shake their heads no.  I ask if they believe that the 10% of college students who consider suicide are necessarily “mentally ill,” and they emphatically shake their heads, “No, no–that’s not it; something else is going on.”

“So what do you think is going on with college students who consider suicide?” I ask. They respond astutely. “Well, it’s hard,” they say. “First there’s the adjustment to life away from family, and all the financial stressors, and the realization that we’re not as special or gifted as we’ve been led to believe. Then there’s the struggle to make friends, and the sense of isolation and failure if our social life doesn’t take off, or if classes are harder than anticipated. Maybe we bring in trauma, too, from the past, or experience trauma in college. Plus, there’s this overwhelming anxiety about the future–will there actually be jobs for us? What if we can’t get jobs, let alone meaningful work? And speaking of work, do we know what we want; are we really pursuing the right things? We can’t be certain of any of it. We’re all competing for seemingly limited resources, we’re still trying to figure out who we are, and on top of it, we’re told by the culture that we have to look and be perfect and have it all together, right now, or else there’s something really wrong with us. Nobody talks about what they’re feeling, either, so we’re alone with this stuff, which only makes it worse.”

As we talk, I tell them about a dear person my family and I lost to suicide. I tell them about people I’ve known who were in crisis, in seemingly inescapable pain, and we talk about the power of human-to-human connection to restore lost hope. As we speak frankly about the taboo topic of suicide, it’s clear that most people present have either known someone who died by suicide or who considered it. It’s a heavy discussion, but also meaningful, and there’s a shared acknowledgement that whether someone considers suicide or not, life is hard, and we need connection, especially around the hard parts.

As I leave these talks, I’m aware that I was once a college student on the same campus at which I now work as a professional. I once felt overwhelmingly lost, in pain, invisible, and at times, hopeless. In fact, I started drawing just after beginning college, because I didn’t know what else to do with my feelings. I carried unspoken, unaddressed traumas inside me, traumas that had created a profound estrangement from myself and a deep longing to return to wholeness. Only I didn’t know the path back to wholeness, and I felt a lot of shame. The unacknowledged traumas had led to a crippling cigarette addiction, which bloomed into a health crisis, which lowered my self-esteem and fed into other risky behaviors. Life wasn’t turning out as I’d planned, and for a semester, I too was among the estimated 10% of college students who may consider suicide.

Making art like the drawing above helped me express my despair. It was the first way I started to return, and the early art that came revealed that I was returning to a person wounded, like a house abandoned under duress and left in disarray.  Then came the loving attention of family, and one good friend, and a caring professor or two who took the time to sit down with me and just connect. Eventually I got up the courage to see a counselor at the college counseling center where I now work; this person, too, cared about me and supported me and encouraged me to keep drawing. That was 15 years ago, and thankfully, I long ago put out my last cigarette, and I’ve never returned to thoughts of suicide. But I will always carry a keen, personal, and often unspoken appreciation for how difficult the college years can be.

You see, when I give these talks, I don’t usually tell college students about my own period of suicidal ideation, even though it was long ago; nor do I tell them how I gradually healed. It’s not that I’m afraid to tell them; more often than not, they get it. In fact, talking about my own experience would probably improve the talks by making me more relatable, more credible, and thus moving the conversation from the abstract—from suicidal ideation as something that happens to other people over there–to something that can touch any of us, even mental health professionals, under overwhelming circumstances, and something that can often, with supportive connection, be overcome.

It is ironic that in a field that believes fiercely in the power of speaking about painful issues, mental health professionals are reluctant to talk about our own lived experiences of emotional and mental health challenges, and we tend to stigmatize one another for speaking up about our stories. Our training teaches us to focus on other people’s pain, and to avoid discussing our challenges, even with our colleagues as we go through school. The reasons for this are complex, but I believe we do this, in part, because somewhere along the line we got worried about revealing our vulnerability. We got scared that our vulnerability might make us appear less qualified, less credible, and we started policing each other. We bought into the myth of professionalism=perfectionism and now are facing an isolation similar to that which burdens so many college students.

I know about this isolation from both study and experience. Before I was a professional counselor, I was in graduate school to become a therapist for nearly a decade, and today, in addition to doing therapy, I teach a course The Counselor as a Person, where graduate counseling students open up and share more of who they are–as real people, with challenges and resiliencies, just like our clients. I will tell you that when they feel safe enough to do so, my students express their confusion; they say that they went into the helping professions because of their own difficulties and ongoing recoveries, and yet they feel discouraged from acknowledging these experiences for fear of being judged. Students who cry in classes or “over-disclose” are often seen as “breaking down” and told that if they can’t keep themselves together, they need to get their own personal counseling to work through their “issues.”

Boundaries are important in therapy work, and I endorse personal counseling for all counselors-in-training, and for licensed professionals as-needed throughout life—in my opinion, it’s just part of a good, long-term self-care regimen. But I believe that mental health professionals and students alike who don’t allow each other the space to be vulnerable and real do ourselves and possibly the field a disservice. When we ourselves struggle, we may not reach out to connect in ways that could be protective, healthy, strengthening. We may also unwittingly make it harder for prospective clients to reach out to us because they think it means something is wrong with them for needing to talk.  We can thus perpetuate the myth that we have it all together and our clients are “ill” because they alone struggle.

As counselors, we intuitively know that our real power is in our ability to connect, person to person, in genuine ways, yet many of us feel blocked and shamed from sharing our stories in productive ways with each other or with the people we serve. We’re taught that to be professional is to somehow be both relationally close and “appropriately distant,” and that we need to transcend basic human struggles but dare not let on what we’ve transcended from or how we managed to do so. Granted, there are ways to show empathy and create connection without over-sharing our personal stories, and one of the gifts of a good therapist is the conveyance of deep knowing without distracting insertions and projections.  But of course therapists have and do struggle with our own stuff. And while we can never know exactly what someone else feels or experiences, in times of great emotional pain, the most encouraging words aren’t necessarily “here, let me help you with that, I’m an expert” but some authentic version of “I connect with your pain because I also know deep pain.” In other words, “Me, too.”

There is a place where my art, my profession, my inner life, all the people who have loved and wounded me, and all the people I’ve loved and wounded, intersect. It is difficult to speak of this place, but it is real, the source of my energy, the seat of my heart. Staying in touch with this place allows me to keep showing up to work, to art-making, to myself, and to relationships. I share about this place with you as I strive to stay connected to it in a mental health culture that, however unintentionally, can shame its professionals for being human.

Personally, I appreciate when my therapist shares about her experiences, hints at her humanity, when she indicates her own personal work is ongoing, because she knows that to be alive is to leave and arrive and get lost and return a thousand times or more. I am glad she is a little wiser than me, for her years and her commitment to her own development. But I am even more encouraged that she and indeed everyone who has played a healing role in my life can look at me with eyes of compassion that say, “Me too, my dear, me too.”

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