Here is a link to a story I wrote that I feel like captures how I want to move forward with the rest of my thesis:
I’ve been sick the last few days, so I will admit my productivity has slowed considerably in pretty much every area of my life. I was trying to remember the last time I was sick, and I think it has to have been over a year now… and I haven’t been THIS sick in at least a few years. Not sure if it is the stress of life + being back around so many germs or what, but I am being reminded this week of the physicality of my humanness and how easily it is broken down.
That said, I won’t make it to class tonight and once again I will miss another presentation. I am sorry to both Hugo and Kate for missing your explanations of your thesis projects. I really wanted to be there but life continues to get in the way.
It actually sounds like a lot of my fellow classmates are dealing with some pretty rough life circumstances and my heart goes out to all of you. Trying to juggle work, school, family, and self is difficult – especially when one or more of those areas isn’t going smoothly. I know I have been dealing with some rough waters in several of those areas myself since the beginning of the semester and it has made things feel incredibly overwhelming. I hope you all can give yourself time and grace to care for yourselves as we all try to do this juggling act individually and in community.
Speaking of – this idea of the individual vs the communal was a huge theme in my research this last week as I continue my wrestling with this “theorizing memoir of care”. I decided I needed to do some research into the actual word “care” to see what is out there besides my “ideal type” of trauma informed care and I came upon some intriguing pieces.
- The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global by feminist and philosopher Virginia Held
- “The politics of care” by Woodly, etal.
- Peer-Based Addition Recovery Support: History, Theory, Practice, and Scientific Evaluation by William L. White
- Darkness Visible by William Styron
- The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Reading about the theoretical side of care was helpful to place it within a more concrete definition. I have never read much about care outside of my experience with trauma informed care and so I was pleasantly surprised to see how much of the thoughts concerning it address it as interdependent, contextual, story-based, and practical. The Held book and the politics of care article are a great balance to each other. Held gives me a basic run down of the ethics of care and how it has evolved while the politics of care article brings in the modern, racial justice lens. Both emphasize the importance of interdependence and story in some way and of rewriting old models of understanding how we are supposed to relate to each other in society: i.e. getting away from the Enlightenment “individual” who is only responsible for themself and moving into a new era of interdependent responsibility as found in movements like BLM and in abolition ideology.
Seeing both these resources bring up the question of responsibility towards ‘the other’ was validating and soul sucking. Validating in that it confirms the creeping suspicion I’ve had that we have a responsibility to take care of each other, soul sucking in that it then means I am not the sole focus of my responsibility. One of the overarching feelings I had while I worked in mental health was that of resentment at being held responsible for someone else that ‘shouldn’t’ be my responsibility. Why should I be the one to have to get YOU to make a call that YOU should be motivated to make yourself? How is it that I seem to be the only one who cares about figuring out how to get YOUR financial aid reinstated? Is it really on me that YOU can’t turn in your assignments on time and don’t understand the course material? Why aren’t the people who are SUPPOSED to be doing their jobs and meeting your need failing and leaving me holding the bag?
Now, I don’t believe that the responsibility is 100% on me to make another person succeed; but, at the same time, I can’t help but think I have some role in the success of others and that if I do drop the ball, I contribute to their failure. And that is an uncomfortable place to be because then if you fail, I fail, and because I can’t control you or the forces around you, we are left at the mercy of our collective effort and the effort of those around us to do their job to properly care. “Proper care” is again the operative word because ultimately my success and your success depends on the tools of care that we start with; if we don’t even have an accurate view of what care is or how it should be gone about, we are set up for failure.
A specific example of what I am trying to get at with this whole ‘proper care’ diatribe is found in the third resource I found, the monograph on peer support in recovery. When I first started working at the mental health agency I was at I was a ‘peer support specialist’. Simply put, it is a person who has lived experience with mental illness and who has come to a place in their recovery where they are able to turn around and help others with mental illness. I emotionally fought so much in myself the entire time I was a peer because of how much I felt I wasn’t equipped well enough to do my job; but over and over I was told that my story – my self – was the tool I was to use to help others and so to just keep using what I had.
White’s writing on peer support made me feel seen in a way that I didn’t in the entire time I was in that role and captures the struggle I had. It his monograph, he calls peer support out as the complex and contradictory thing that it is:
“The emphasis on reciprocal self-disclosure and mutual identification in [peer support] is in marked contrast to the debate surrounding self-disclosure in psychotherapy and addiction counseling, where such disclosure has been discouraged except under strict clinical guidelines. In contrast, peer helpers often view self-disclosure of their recovery story as self-reparation, an offering of hope to those still suffering, and an instrument of public education that might counter social stigma and widen the doorways of entry into recovery for others…
The self-disclosure debate reflects a broader difference in the degree of personal involvement in the helping relationship by the peer specialist[:]
The peer encounter is neither narrowly rule-directed nor reflexive; each participant must think, evaluate various alternative actions, and interpret the other’s actions…. Consequently, [peer] support providers must always evaluate how much to invest emotionally and how much to refrain from investing. They must decide how much they want to be distanced from the recipient by the veil of objectivity and detachment versus how much they want to be emotionally invested through empathy, compassion, and caring. This means that support providers must work at finding a balance between the pitfalls of indifference (i.e., detached, bureaucratic helping) and enmeshment (i.e., biased, overly emotional helping), which involves determining the boundaries of the relationship…
The peer’s degree of personal involvement is a strength and vulnerability of [peer support]. The distancing maneuvers of treatment professionals are intended to ensure objectivity in assessment and counseling, reduce the risk of exploitation in the helping relationship, and minimize the effects of vicarious traumatizaton (VT)—also known as secondary traumatic stress. VT occurs when helpers lack the defenses necessary to protect themselves against the emotional impact of helpees’ stories of victimization, degradation, and/or perpetration. Diagnostic schemes, theoretical models, manual-guided service protocols, therapeutic techniques, ethical codes, and brief service relationships all serve as protective shields for the professional. In the world of peer support, the helper has greater levels of emotional exposure. (pp. 86-87)
When I went into the role as a peer support specialist, I felt this exact feeling of being completely vulnerable to the trauma of others without the proper tools to protect myself. I did have ‘some’ training, but my role with clients was often far more invested and personal than any of the therapists’ experienced. That isn’t to say the therapists never experienced vicarious trauma or that their jobs weren’t stressful – of course they did and their roles in care are a whole other story.
White adds yet another interesting piece that stood out to me as something I was lacking and that fits into the ethic of care ideal that proper care is interdependent:
“For the [peer support] specialist, protection comes not from intellectualization of the horror to which one may be exposed, or by personal distancing, but through support for the helper and helpee from a larger recovery community. In other words, the emotional intensity of reciprocal self-disclosure and the intimacy produced by such disclosure are diffused within a larger community of mutual support. When peer helpers work in isolation from this support, they may injure themselves through the helping process. Some stories are so horrific that their poisons cannot be emotionally digested by the peer helper.” (p.87)
I think my thesis is a way of “emotionally digesting” what I wasn’t able to at the time I was working because of the lack of the proper tools of care in me and around me. The peer support specialist role is a powerful one because it is showing those that are in early recovery that making progress is possible. By having people who are further along in their recovery care for those in early stages, the peer embodies hope for peers and inspires more empathy within the institutions that are offering care. But what is their true responsibility towards their peers? What are the proper tools of care in a position like that? Why do I feel like I was so lacking in what I needed to properly care for people and for myself?
These are the questions I am wrestling with as I consider all this. Which is why I feel like I need to just tell stories about what happened. But as I write my stories, I feel like many of them are dark and the burnout I had is so present that I don’t know if it overshadows everything. That is why I added in Styron’s Darkness Visible – his short book on his own recovery journey with depression and suicide. The book is dark and heavy, and you never forget just how horrible the place he is in is… but he brings something to the story that informs the reader and that leaves the reader with hope in the end. Not a happily ever after, but a glimpse of ‘okay’. I want to try and accomplish this.
I also included Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat because he is a) a great example of academic story telling and b) does it in a way that incorporates information the reader needs to consider deeper questions he is contemplating about life and humanity. I also want to use his book as a negative example because I want to do better than he does at humanizing and not pathologizing the people in my case study stories.