Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Vanessa Jackson

The Liberation Journey of an African-American Woman

Vanessa Jackson is a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Healing Circles, Inc., a counseling and coaching private practice in Atlanta, GA. She is the author of two monographs: “In Our Own Voice: African-American Stories of Oppression, Survival and Recovery in Mental Health Systems” and “Separate and Unequal: The Legacy of Racially Segregated Psychiatric Hospitals”. She has chapters in two books, “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: Reflections on Feminist Therapy with Low-Wage Earning Women” in Psychotherapy with Women and “Surviving My Sister’s Suicide: A Journey Through Grief” in Living Beyond Loss: Death in the Family. She is currently co-editing a book on power theory and practice. Jackson has presented at several international narrative therapy and community work conferences and her discussion on African American psychiatric history was featured on the Friday Afternoons at the Dulwich series. Jackson holds an MSW from Washington University-George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

Yago: Vanessa, you are very much welcome to this blog called “Breathing Forgiveness.” In this blog we believe in the power of naming, deconstructing and finally embracing today’s energies of enslavement. We would like to listen and learn from your liberation journey as an African-American woman; also by your professional work as a therapist and Black's women health activist. Your work especially focuses in clinical health issues.
But first of all we would like to know a bit more about your own background. You identify yourself as an activist and a therapist. Fighting for change and justice has been a very big story line for you. What has shaped you to be who you are now?

Vanessa: Yago, I grew up in a working class, predominately African American community in the Springfield, Illinois, land of Lincoln, but early on I began to notice inequities based on race and class. Two events fueled my passion for social justice.  The first was my transfer in sixth grade from my predominately African American neighborhood school to a predominately white upper-class private school. While I grew to value the educational opportunity, I grieved the loss of connections to friends and my crash course in negotiating class and race divisions as an eleven year old child. I marveled at my older sister’s ability to shift between worlds while I felt like I had to fight to retain my sense of identity as a working class African American child. I had a foot in two worlds and increasingly felt like I belonged in neither world. I think that experience really wired me to lead with my racial identity and dedicate my life to honoring my ancestors and rendering my people visible in a country that continues to feel very hostile to our very survival.

Vanessa with her mother
The second event was the destruction of my community due to urban renewal. I had a close-up view of the process since my mother was president of the project area council that worked to prevent the dismantling of our neighborhoods but ultimately had to concede the fight and try to cut the best deal for people. What I learned from watching her was the power of collaboration and resistance. I find it amusing that I knew what eminent domain meant when I was 10 years old! I realize now that it was kind of unusual. I often joke that I learned everything that I really need to learn about activism not in graduate school or feminists’ groups but at my mother’s kitchen table. 

We lost so much through development induced displacement. Institutions destroyed, relationships severed, neighborhoods carved up leaving people isolated and the destruction of economically diverse African American communities.  It is really hard for me to suppress my rage when I drive through my neighborhood today. It is as if the economic equivalent of a neutron bomb hit the community. We literally lost nearly seventy-five percent of the population over a fifteen year period. I remember my parents’ decision to move to the other end of the block versus moving to other areas of the city which had been recently opened up to African American due to fair housing laws. That decision taught me the importance of staying and investing in a place that holds my history. I find myself demonstrating that same commitment to community building years after leaving Springfield and relocating to the South.

Vanessa Jackson
I realized the importance of my mother in the shaping of myself as an activist/ healer/ therapist/community organizer when I was being interviewed by Michael White [co-creator of narrative therapy] and sort of stumbled on the story about why it was important for me to show up in loving ways in my work. I was dealing with challenges from working with groups around antiracism issues and really trying not to give into the despair and rage that can be created in those moments when I realize that what was most important to me was that my work reflect the face of my mother who I always saw as strong and loving and clear and hard-working. It really reinforced for me that how we do our work is as important as the outcome of that work. It is interesting that, prior to co-teaching a course on narrative theory and practice at Eastern Mennonite University in the summer of 2013, I really never considered myself to be a peace builder. In fact, I had always prided myself on being an “in-your-face” and angry type of activist. Peace building always seemed to be the work of other people and required a calmer or more passive way of being. I have mellowed as I have aged and began to think about the world that I wanted to inhabit in the event that we were successful in our struggle for social justice. I wanted to make sure that I was fit to live next door to people because it can be very difficult to shift out of warrior mode. 

I have come to appreciate the power in peace. I know that there is a lot of action and energy in peace and that there must also be a lot of love in peace building work. I laughed with one course participant who noted, while showing us self defense moves, that sometimes she has to “get someone’s attention”  before she can  pass on the peace message. So I have added a new identity of peace builder to how I show up in the world and I look forward to growing into the work.

It is very humbling at times to watch my mother’s passions come alive in my own life. I think that she would laugh at me right now because the lessons I’m learning as I entered the second chapter of my life post- 50 is the power of being gentle, the power of working in the background and the power of not needing to declare myself right all the time. I am still working on that last one.

Yago: You talk about the way you have come to appreciate the power of peace. As a therapist you are working a lot with ideas of power. Why?

Elaine Pinderhughes
Vanessa: I first encountered themes of power in graduate school while taking a class with Elaine Pinderhughes. What was really amazing was that she was one of the rare African-American professors that I had in my social work program and that she had made a career writing about African-American people. I had been told by advisors that I would ghettoize myself if I had chosen such a path. What Elaine taught us in her class was the power of story and sharing without comparing. I know that she talked about a lot of very deep and philosophical things during the course but two questions stood out for me and have shaped my life and my career. The first question was “when have you felt powerful?” The second question was “when have you felt powerless?” These questions set the frame for discussions about connections and launched me on a lifelong exploration of power. One of the amazing moments in that course, was listening to stories from an African-American man and a White woman and realizing that I had never listened with such an open heart and without fear that my own story would get lost in the sharing. It was a moment where I discovered connection and solidarity and the amazing power stories.

Yago: Vanessa, thanks for sharing this. You are currently editing a book on different ways to understand power. Could you share with us what is your goal?

Vanessa: Over the years, I kept coming back to Elaine Pinderhughes’ work on power and after 16 years of no contact with her we reconnected at a conference in 2003. We have since embarked on a collaboration to infuse power analysis into human service work in the creation of a book that’s designed to be a primer on power. My preferred title is "Power: A User’s Manual" but I think that we are going with something slightly more academic. What has been a gift in this process, aside from working with Elaine, is that I was forced to analyze my own practice and tease out the philosophical underpinnings of how I do my work and how I think about change. This has led me to some places that have surprised me at times. 

First of all, I recognized that there was more structure to what I was doing than I had initially thought was present. My goal with the book is to help human services providers, and by extension the people whom they serve, to understand how power operates in our lives and the systems which impact us daily. We often deplete our energies by spending so much time dealing with the symptoms of power inequities rather than addressing root causes. For instance, in my neighborhood, there is considerable concern about crime and the need to have greater police presence. When the issue is framed as a crime problem, we miss the underlying causes of racial and class disparities which leave significant numbers of our neighbors with insufficient resources, substandard schools and loss of housing with the influx of more affluent people who move in driving up taxes and driving out long term residents. We tend not to see these shifts as a form of economic violence and that a peace-building model which created opportunities to explore hopes and fears and co-create strategies for an inclusive community development plan which would benefit all residents. Such a strategy would require that we really listen to each other and move past fears to witness each others’ stories about family, community and our future. Those crucial connections are hard to achieve when we explore neighborhood challenges through the narrow lens of crime reduction. At the heart of it all is the struggle to build trust between people who have long thought of themselves as enemies or “Other.”

In spite of all of the funding thrown at “empowerment programs” over the past few decades, few human services workers have been trained to analyze power dynamics and even fewer have been given the space to struggle with power- power to, power over, power within and power with- on a personal level as part of their professional training. This leaves us vulnerable to frustration and power abuses as we attempt to ameliorate conditions for our clients without having a full understanding of how the problems were laid down, what maintains them and what collaborative actions need to be taken to remedy the power inequities. Connection, trust, compassionate witnessing and creative visioning are not yet “evidence based practices” that the government will fund. We have to reclaim a willingness to make mistakes, wander from the path and risk looking foolish if we are going to bring about the needed changes. That does not fit in with the expectation that we create easily replicated, canned programs which can be applied to any community. It is hard to mass-market strategies for complex social problems (and do it within the grant funding cycle). We have to have the courage to demand more time, to be more open-hearted, to toss a failed strategy aside and trust that we can create something more effective. It always circles back to trust for me.

Yago: You invite us to move from trauma to “power wounding.” I believe that a good amount of trust is needed. What do you mean in this transition?

Vanessa: I first began to work with the concept of "power wounding" in my clinical work with women who had experienced emotional/physical/sexual/fiscal abuse and who were struggling with varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of these experiences. I began to hear women talk about their traumatic experiences in ways that led them to feel that they were irrevocably damaged by the experiences and in some sense would always bear scars that would limit their ability to fully function in the world. While I agreed that they had experienced injuries that had severely compromised many, if not all of their coping mechanism, I was concerned about them taking a position that left them with a profound sense of hopelessness and helplessness. As Post Traumatic Stress Disorder became a more mainstream diagnosis it seemed to further crystallize a perception that a person was ill with a disorder of some sort. While there was clearly a positive side the naming of trauma and its on-going impact in the lives of individuals, it also took on a life as a label that then began to define how individuals labeled with PTSD related to themselves and how others related to them, especial mental health professionals. It felt like too static of a description for what women in my practice were experiencing and the positioning as a label opened up what I felt to be a dangerous kind of passivity as people expressed that it was something that they had to live with or were seemingly searching for the professional to remove this “curse” from their lives. So in clinical sessions, I began to talk with clients about the traumatic events as creating a “power wound” that left them feeling traumatized and which had required them to shift vast amounts of their emotional energy to deal with the traumatic experience. We began to talk about strategies for shifting their energy and their sense of power back to the issues and experiences that allowed them to experience a sense of agency and a positive sense of themselves in their own lives.

"Power Wounding" is not fundamentally different from trauma in that it involves a potentially life-threatening event which resulted in on-going symptoms such as anxiety, depression, hypervigilance. But it is a new way of talking about the experience as an on-going process or an unfolding story versus something that happened to them and for which they have to simply deal with the consequences of for the rest of their lives.

I also recognize the power of the co-creation which occurred daily in sessions between me and my clients as we tried to make sense of life. One example that stands out for me is a young woman who came in and after several sessions I noticed a pattern of her giving me credits for statements that she had made in session. My answer to this dilemma was to bring in a large flip chart on which I periodically wrote comments as she made them. We came to describe this process as “flip charting” and it was our way of handing back her voice to her and honoring her own wisdom. I soon integrated this practice into my ongoing work. It was really important for me to not buy into therapists as holders- of- all knowledge and marginalize or invisibilize the power wisdom of my clients even when they were angry or in pain.

Yago: You have several publications. One of them is titled: “In Our Own Voice: African-American Stories of Oppression, Survival and Recovery in Mental Health Systems.” In Part 3, “It’s about time: Discovering, recovering and celebrating psychiatric consumer/survivor history,” you see the need to tell the truth about suicide in the African-American community. You also say that this book is a revolutionary act of self-love and a demand for visibility for African-American psychiatric survivors. Could you share with us more in detail the main motivation of your book?

Vanessa: “In Our Own Voice” was an opportunity to transform my personal pain into an empowering and educational experience for the African American community. My sister, Michelle, committed suicide when I was in my early twenties and I felt especially blind-sided by her death because I had bought into the myth that “Black people do not kill themselves.” I realized that many African Americans were struggling with emotional difficulties and/or mental illness but were suffering in silence or having their pain criminalized when depression showed up as rage or substance abuse. 

As a therapist and Black women’s health activist, it was really important for me to find some meaning in my sister’s suffering and death and I set out to become the kind of therapist that I wished that she had been given access to during her many attempts to get help. Many years later, when I experienced a divorce-induced clinical depression, I came to appreciate the depth of pain and hopelessness that my sister must have experienced. Fortunately, I had access to culturally conscious therapy, medication of my own choosing and a politically conscious support group which gave me the space to express a full range of emotions. 

Patricia Deegan, Ph.D.
This painful experience and my willingness to speak out publically about my sister’s suicide and my experience with depression resulted in me being offered a chance to research African-American psychiatric history through a project led by Patricia Deegan, Ph.D. who is an activist and leading researcher in the mental health consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement. I had a chance to conduct oral history interviews with African-American psychiatric survivors and search through state hospital archives for materials to tell some small portion of the story of oppression, abuses and mislabeling that African Americans routinely experienced in mental health systems.

This allowed me to spend time with Pemina Yellowbird, a Native American activist, who was working on native people’s psychiatric history. One day we reflected on how our people made it through such abuses and identified some of the natural processes/rituals/practice that we used to get through trauma and oppression. She mentioned the healing practices within her tradition in which when someone was in distress they would come to the shaman, the healer, the medicine man or woman and they would be asked three questions.

The first question was “what happened to you?” The second question was “how does what happened to you affect you now?” And the third question was “what do you need to heal?” I was struck by the power of these three simple questions and how they could transform a typical mental health intake process. What stood out for me was the questions were so hopeful. They seem to presume that the person had knowledge of what was happening for them. And they presumed that there was a solution and so the questions were embedded in hope. Over the years, I have expanded on these questions always in collaboration with Pemina since I want to honor the gift from her people to me in the sharing of the questions. One question that was added was informed by conversations with African-American friend of mine who is a psychologist and a minister, Makungu Akinyela, who noted that the healing questions really fit with the testimony traditions in African-American communities and black churches. He talked about the power of people standing before the congregation and talking about the ways that they made it through trials and tribulations and how that process was a healing process. Through those conversations a fourth question was constructed which was “how in spite of what happened, have you been able to triumph?” This triumph question invites people to go back and look at the situation and pullout the strength points which are often overlooked when we are in pain. In my own therapy practice my client and I have come to call those triumph moments “power sparks”.

Over the years I’ve added three additional questions. Another question that was added was “what are the external factors which have contributed to your wounding?” Because I’m a social worker and I’m always looking at the person in their environment, I presume there some external factors that trigger reactions. I realize that it was dangerous to assume that other people were looking at problems in the same manner.  I wanted to add a question that would direct both my clients and other clinicians toward looking at the external environment that can profoundly shape our experiences of life and certainly of our experiences of power. The next two questions came out of my own journey with the power wounding which is how I came to conceptualize ways that people were impacted by difficult events. After moving through my depression/descent and then publicly talking about that experience, I realize that healing was not complete unless I learned something new through the struggle that would support my growth.  

So the sixth question was “what gifts have you received from this experience?” This question invites us to really explore what we can do better different new perspectives that come out of something that was devastating and the goal of the question is to help us find meaning in the experience. I think that finding meaning helps inspire hope both in moving through that particular experience as well as in future challenges. The final question also comes out of my experience but is also influenced by my fascination with the hero’s journey or that quest to find something and bring it back to the tribe, to get back to community, to go back to where you started transformed and with the possibility of transforming that place and those people. So the final question is “what lessons and wisdom can you share with others based on your experiences?” It occurred to me that I needed to put the Healing Questions in a spiral because it really is a journey into the center of oneself. During the process of analyzing my practices, my work became less of a clinical exploration and much more of a spiritual/ magical/ mystical experience and maybe that’s really what good psychological experiences are at the end of healing journey.

Yago: You say that if you want to be a woman of integrity you could not go back and be a traditional therapist because the history of it, the foundation of it, and the practices. You are quite critical with the traditional clinical approach to people who have been carrying wounds from systemic oppression, especially from inherited slavery. Could you share with us what is wrong with the system in which you were initiated professionally?

Vanessa: The pseudo-science of diagnosing mental illness and the decontexualizaion of human problems are two of the most damaging aspect of the mental health profession. One way that the labeling process can be damaging is that it can minimize and invisibilize social and political repression by medicalizing experiences. A perfect example of the medicalizing of the political social and economic experience is the use of the term drapetomania, a term created by Dr. Samuel L Cartwright in 1851 to describe the behavior of slaves who ran away from their masters. Dr. Cartwright was an expert in slave medicine and based on his observations and reports from overseers, he described a mental illness that caused slaves to run away from their natural condition of enslavement. As a pro-slavery advocate, Dr. Cartwright believed that such behavior could only be characterized as mental illness. While this term sounds completely outrageous to us today, I would argue that such terms as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorders which are widely use to describe, medicate and incarcerate children and adolescents are modern day examples of pathologizing efforts to liberate oneself and these labels blind us to the oppression that marginalized groups, like enslaved persons and children experience when they lack power and agency.

One of my favorite stories from my research on African American psychiatric history, is a story of Ben Riley who in the 1950s. He was part of inpatient rebellion in Texas in which patients in the psychiatric forensic unit took over the facility held the superintendent hostage and attempted the hook him up to an ECT machine and administer shock treatment. I remember seeing a photo of Mr. Riley, a 20-year-old African-American man pointing out his scars to the camera. The story talked about insane and wild demands but the truth was that Mr. Riley was showing the scars from being abused in the facility and the patients’ demands were for equal treatment compared to their white counterparts and appropriate food, education, and exercise. Clearly their insanity was being asked be treated as human beings. This is a perfect example of the power of being in charge of the storytelling process. 

The tragic chapter of Crownsville State Hospital
 (Credit: Capital file, 
I think other highlights in African-American psychiatric history include some of the work at Crownsville state hospital in Maryland where they implemented an innovative program in family treatment and attempted humanize the forensic unit by putting actual nursing in place. In the early 1960’s, Crownsville’s superintendent used the power of his office to release civil right activists who had been labeled insane (a tactic to intimidate them into eating or pleading guilty to charges) because they had gone on a hunger strike in the local jail after being arrested for trying to integrate a lunch counter. The superintendent determined that they were not insane and were engaged in a political protest. 

There the story of Ola Mae Clemens who is called the “Rosa Parks of Albany, Georgia” for her efforts to integrate the local bus service. Ms. Clemens was eventually incarcerated for 33 years at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville Georgia and subjected to over 100 shock treatments. At no point in her treatment was there a discussion of her activism, of the blacklisting that made it impossible for her to get a job in her community, her separation from her child and her grief over her oppression. Many of her activist friends did not know where she was during those years and had no idea that she had been locked away in a psychiatric facility. One has to wonder how her life would have been different if there had been a place for exhausted and possibly even disillusioned activists and peace builders to go to heal, to stay connected to the work in different ways and to simply rest.

Recently, the state of Maryland stated its intention to do conduct of investigation of the treatments of African American patients at the now closed Crownsville State Hospital. First, this shows that history matters and that the lives of those many, many patients and their families still matter. This investigation may also be an opportunity to highlight the long-standing inequities in treatment, in funding and in research as it applies to African-American psychiatric experiences. It is never too late to revise the story and to give voice to people who have been silenced.

Yago: The majority of the interviews spoke of the importance of their spirituality in their recovery process. Several people talked about the need to help religious institutions respond more effectively to mental health concerns. Why religious institutions are being so slow to respond to the needs of the traumatized?

Vanessa: That is a multilevel question. I think part of the reluctance to address the issue of trauma is that it has felt inconsistent with people having faith. Too often, people who experience emotional distress and trauma were told that their faith was not sufficient to allow them to protect themselves from harm or to resolve the trauma resulting from the harm. In some cases, religious organizations were the cause of the harm; take for instance the well-documented cases of sexual violation of children and young people within the Catholic Church and other religious organizations. To name the harm done, to reach out to heal the trauma would first require the acknowledgment of damage done in spaces that were designed to be safe and healing and crimes committed by people in places of spiritual leadership and power. I think there are more recent efforts through pastoral counseling program, community education programs on mental health and increasing partnerships between spiritual communities and mental health professionals to have religious institutions minister more effectively to traumatized members.

Yago: You say that now you can have a new story for engaging people around healing from pain. It gives you a counter-narrative. Could you share with us how did narrative therapy came into your life?

Michael White (1948-2008)
Vanessa: As I explored the origins of mental health in America, I was horrified.  Throughout my training and in my professional career, I had been given a narrative of mental health treatment as a benevolent and science-based care system. What I discovered was the racism, classism, power abuses and outright lies about success rates from the day the first asylum opened. This led to another breakdown of sorts as I began to question my willingness to continue as a therapist once I understood the abusive origins of my field. I was fortunate in that moment to encounter or really re-encounter the work of Michael White and the Dulwich Center Narrative therapy became my lifeline and a path back to my profession. What most attracted me was the power shift from who the expert was in the clinical interface. Narrative therapy is grounded in a deep respect for the lived experience. This fit with what I learned in my research that the lived experience of consumer/survivor/X patients was a powerful knowing that held real healing potential and which needed to be acknowledged and made visible if the mental health field can have any kind of integrity or be rendered safe for clients. So I began to study narrative therapy and to connect with the staff at the Dulwich center and colleagues in the wider narrative community. I am grateful to them for their enthusiasm about my work and I’m reminded about how important it is when we are taking new steps out into work that is frightening and unfamiliar to the masses and even slightly controversial about the importance of having kindred spirits on that journey.

I often joke that I’m a backdoor narrative therapists because I came into the door of honoring people who have an oral tradition understanding the value of the fact that my people told stories around fires and in inelegant spaces; an attempt to stay alive and the keep the memories of our people alive. I did not come to it for the high theory or the social construction or the postmodern nature of it. I’m grateful that there’s room for all of us around the storytelling fire.

Yago: The word ‘story’ has different associations and understanding for different people. Could you tell us the understanding of story of a narrative therapist?

Vanessa: What does the word “story” even mean? I guess I can speak best for what it means to me. For me, story means the data, the memories, the feelings and the meaning created by experience and the process of sharing that experience to another person. I have a colleague who raised the issue that nothing has meaning outside of the relating of information to someone else. While I believe that the relational context is really important, I think that there can be meaning, and a profound impact, in my internal reflection on an experience- sorting through the reality of something- which is effectively a conversation between the self that was present at moment and the self that is the reflecting mind at different time. In fact, the word story can be quite confusing because it can also feel like it’s not only somehow not accurate or “true.”  I have seen lots of conflict emerge in therapy sessions as people try to share their experiences which may conflict with the experiences of a partner or family member. For some people the word story can translate into the truth of what happened. For others it’s a description of an event. In my work, story is the events, the emotions, the decisions that emerged from an event and is therefore a much more complex description or definition of story.

Yago: In our Western world we are experiencing a great lost on the power and profound meaning of storytelling. Richard Stone, in his book “The Healing Art of Storytelling” says “Just as clear-cutting an old growth forest leads to the phenomenon called deforestation - the stripping of the landscape of more than just trees - our culture has been devastated by the loss of storytelling as a tool for communicating, passing on values, learning and, most important, healing. I call it destorification. Its effect is as devastating as its ecological cousin’s.” Could you share with us what is the damage that destorification is creating?

Vanessa: Stone’s destorification quote immediately resonated with me since it so vividly highlights the reality that something sacred, invaluable and life-giving is taken away. Being stripped of our stories and long-standing ways of passing in culture and making meaning of our lives is having a profound consequence for people. Part of my work is to bring stories back into therapy and rituals and to be a hearer of stories, a teller of stories and to really remember that psychotherapy is a very new phenomenon in human history. The ancient drawings on cave walls were ways of telling stories and people always find a way to try to make sense of the world.  It is the great healing tool because when people can tell their stories and have a story witnessed, they are so much more open to hearing the stories of others.

One of the stories that I wanted to explore in our Narrative Theory and Practice course was how participants came to the Peacebuilding path? What are the values and experiences that guide them what keeps them in the work? What breaks their hearts at times? What do they need from others to stay in the work? I see the sacredness of Peacebuilding work. Because it’s so sacred, it needs lots of support to keep people engaged and sustained. So we can come together sometimes just on the page on Facebook and the really, really beautiful moments when it works out there were physically in front of each other. We can hold each other, can see each other, can witness the tears, spread the enthusiasm and share resources. That is pure magic! Part of my story and quest is to restore magic to the world and the most powerful magic that we all have is the power to speak our truths and tell our stories.

Yago: Beautiful words! You have been exploring new ways of thinking on how to be in the therapeutic work. You say that if something does not shift you cannot be in this work. You were in real need of finding a new discourse. Could you share with us your journey on this regard?

Vanessa: One of the things that I’m sort of dealing with now is a shift in consciousness. I alluded to it earlier when I talked about the shifts from that of being a fairly traditional therapist and the crisis that I encountered during my history research. What I had not realized at the time is that things had changed in a more fundamental level for me after coming through my own breakthrough experience and then understanding the historical oppression embedded in mental health service globally. It see that it is important for me to infuse the spiritual, not religious but the spiritual, back in to therapy because that is the separation that’s gone on way too long and has created a lot of harm for people. As I was working on the healing questions and trying to understand my own philosophy about why change happens and how change happens, I saw that there is a place after one names what is going on with them and is witnessed by compassionate listeners that there is something in between making a new decision and acting upon that decision. Initially, I couldn’t figure it out and then I realized that a part of it was about having choice but then it seemed like there was something that happened even before the choice. I came to see that moment as hope.

Somewhere in the process of being wounded, naming it and having other people witness and acknowledge the wound, something happened where people believed life could be different. I circle back to the healing/magic questions from the Pemina Yellow Bird that seem to lead in the direction that healing was possible. I begin to think about how do we talk about hope in therapy and I realize that we rarely talk about it in an explicit manner. 

So I had to do some research on hope. I was led to the work of C.J. Snyder and his book, Psychology of Hope.  I looked at works that were more of the spiritual nature to help me understand how this thing called hope works. I remember talking to a colleague and questioning why we were not trained on hope in our graduate programs. His sense was that hope sat to close to faith and that felt too religious or spiritual and not scientific and so we left hope out the hallway instead of bringing it into the therapy office. It is my goal to bring hope back into the room, to bring faith in the room and, through activism, to bring love back into the room. At this time in our lives, we need a lot of hope and we need encouragement, inspiration and circles where we can sit and be confused. We need places to tell our story so that we can move through the confusion, analyze our problems and create strategies for change.

Yago: "Thin descriptions" obscures many other possible meanings of a particular problematic story. What is meant by “thin description” in the context of narrative therapy?

Vanessa: As a clinician and as someone who has experience psychiatric labeling, it has been my experience that the labeling result in a very thin description of what has happened and can sometimes trap people in that limited description. An example, someone has a traumatic experience such as rape and following that experience may have lots of depression anxiety and suspiciousness of others. We label this as post-traumatic stress disorder and that would be accurate but what we miss is what it means for that person to walk in the world having experienced violation from another person and figure out how to withhold and/or reestablish trust with themselves and the rest of the world. A good therapist can help them do that but if we stay in the language of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, we may miss the opportunity for her to talk about anger and outrage and fear and maybe even a disconnection from the spiritual.  This results in what narrative therapists might refer to as a "thin description." This is why I really like the healing questions and especially the magic questions from Native American tradition which starts with what happened and allows the person to unfold her story and tell it in the order that makes sense for her. These wounding and healing narrative provide structure to help the person begin to make some meaning of what has happened and how they will construct a life in the aftermath of wounding.

Yago: Vanessa, let us end our interview coming back to your role as an activist, but now from the perspective of being a wounded healer. You say that those of us who are called to healing and activism meets safety nets, the safe harbor and spaces of respite to allow us to heal, to reflect, to return to state of wholeness to continue our powerful work in the world. What are the common symptoms of a wounded healer? What are the challenges faced by a wounded healer?

Vanessa: I think there are a range of symptoms which identified someone as a wounded healer. Oftentimes what we call “burnout” is a continuum of experiences including depression, sadness, hopelessness, loss of passion, loss of the sense of direction and separation from the “Call.”  Wounded healers can show up in the expression of more violent acts, boundary violations, sexual abusive behavior, substance abuse and other forms of self-destructive behavior. It can be difficult for activists, healers, clergy members, mental health professionals, domestic violence workers and others who are out there helping the world heal but who in private are struggling themselves. The biggest danger to the wounded healer is the unwillingness to reach out for help and the lack of responsiveness from others if they did. It is really helpful when other users step forward and talk about where they are, where they are exhausted, where they have lost faith or direction since it will give others permission to do the same. It’s crucial for healers not to allow ourselves to be isolated or idolized because it’s very hard to get support up on a pedestal. 

So how do healers resolve this dilemma? First it’s important to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth. Second, have consistent practices of self-care. This may include regular retreat time, clear boundaries about when you are or are not available to others, staying clear that reciprocal relationships are crucial to your emotional well-being and asking for help when you need. As I said before it really, really helps when those who are high profile step up and talk about their struggles and, in fact, give permission for others to seek help. One way that I worked to create that kind of space is with an activist assistance program were I provide low-cost and occasionally free coaching and counseling to activists in certain areas that are very dear to my heart. 
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
This is my way of investing in people around the front lines working on issues that are very important to me. I think the most important thing I do in that work is give people permission to be tired, to give people permission to be angry, to honor their frustration and hopefully to work with them to come up with concrete and individualized strategies for resolving the problem.  This often involves strengthening their support networks, creating places for emotional meltdowns and opportunities to find their strength in their willingness to be vulnerable. As the great Black activist-poet Audre Lorde noted “I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.”

Yago: Vanessa, thanks for your wonderful witness. Indeed it is an amazing contribution to this blog. Indeed, deconstruction is essential before we embrace the giant wound present in today's world. You have contributed with a new magic. 

Vanessa: Thanks to you, Yago! I am very grateful to you for inviting me to look at my work in such a deep manner.