PSA: I hope and plan to come back to writing regularly in a few short weeks. Not sure if I will have anything worthwhile to say…but I’ll be available…so maybe we can be surprised at what comes out, together. 😛
I recently came across this article, referring to the recent news that the founder of “project semi-colon” (a suicide awareness movement) had tragically taken her life. The article is called The Realities and Risks of Lived Experience Advocacy. I found a lot of points in it very relatable, but wanted to un-pack some of it a little further. I didn’t know Amy Bleuel, so I don’t know what factors culminated in the choice she made. But I do know that when I struggle with the advocacy role (on top of the struggles inherent in trauma recovery), there are important reasons why.
It’s a strange thing, when you are a “lived-experience advocate,” as they put it. I hear the term “peer worker” more often, and prefer it, but I think they’re being used to mean similar things. Being a lived-experience advocate in a field like trauma recovery (or even more specifically, trauma-based DID, or SRA) comes with unique pressures and pitfalls that those who are professionals in the field, and those who are clients only, do not face. And I think it’s worth talking about.
Peer workers are still human, even if we’re advocating on behalf of others, or within a cause that benefits others. But yet it can be incredibly difficult to admit – at least to those we’re committed to advocating for – when we’re not doing well, ourselves. It can seem like if we admit that we’re struggling, people will no longer see us as someone worthy of being listened to or taking advice from. As if our experience and past wisdom is invalid just because it seems irrelevant or inaccessible to us on a personal level when we’re having a hard day. It seems at times as if people want a role model who has overcome – past tense – not someone who is still fighting daily to believe in and take hold of the freedom we hope is out there.
I have to pause and say that a lot of this pressure is self-imposed. I, personally, have never been openly criticized for admitting my struggles on my blog. I’ve found the people who read my writing to be overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging and empathetic. (Thank you for that, by the way.) What I’m talking about here are the perceptions that may sometimes be held by groups of people who esteem one of their peer workers, and I’m also talking about my own flawed perception of what people want or need from me. Peer workers can sometimes feel an internal pressure to come across as perfect, or healed, or victorious, or whatever the right word is for whatever goal they’re trying to help others achieve. The pressure is already there, on the inside, without any help from anyone on the outside. So when that internal pressure is mirrored externally by others, if that ends up being the case, the effect becomes magnified.
I think one of the unspoken fears in cases like Amy Bleuel is: if she couldn’t be saved, maybe I can’t either. And conversely, when people look at a lived-experience advocate who appears to be doing well, they may think: if she can do this (e.g. heal from trauma), maybe I can too. Maybe people are looking for a common thread between themselves and the other person to validate (or invalidate) that we can really reach our common goal.
But some of the problem is, being “saved” is not a one-time event, no matter how much we’d like it to be. It’s a constant forward movement – and sometimes the movement temporarily looks and feels backwards, or even stalls. It’s not a one-time choice, but an ongoing series of choices.
Lived-experience advocates have the additional fear added on top of periods of struggle: that if they share publicly that they’re having a hard time, it will be detrimental to those watching. We’re afraid that we will not only let ourselves down, but an entire crowd of others.
As the article I referenced points out, another major difference between peer workers and other professionals who simply work with us (but do not have personal experience with the issues), is that peer workers don’t get to clock out and leave the issues at the office when it’s time to go home. Our “issues” go with us, wherever we go. They blink back at us from the mirror. There are no boundaries behind which we can rest and take a break from them – personal, professional, or otherwise. We are always “on,” to some extent. So our process can feel more draining to us than those who can create spaces where they don’t have to think about these things.
It’s interesting to me that I’ve noticed over the years some small parallels between trying to heal from overwhelming childhood trauma, and trying to get out of poverty. In both cases (and they often co-exist), the needs are usually so great, and yet often so thoroughly misunderstood by those who have never been in our position. So what this means is, it’s very common for those who have the means to help to wrongfully conclude that just because they threw us a small bone and we couldn’t make it work for us to fix our situation, that we just don’t “want it badly enough.” In other words, because we couldn’t build a lifeboat out of two small sticks and a bit of glue, somehow, we are the problem.
Peer workers generally have a desire to share what they know and what they’ve learned in their recovery. They are oftentimes self-motivated by a deep compassion for others’ suffering. This compassion – combined with their own determination to find meaning in their struggles – means that we are not only driven to heal, but to bring as many people with us as we can into that healing. Admitting that we are stuck or stalled or struggling can feel like a failure not only to ourselves, but to the people we’re hoping to help along the way.
There’s probably a lot more to be said on this topic. But these are just a few things that complicate the matter for me, personally. I resisted blogging for a long time, because when I looked around it seemed like there were only 2 ways people wrote recovery blogs: as a victim, powerless, cataloguing daily symptoms and drowning in despair — or as a recovered survivor, resolved, victorious, impervious to further wrestling with complex topics. I just wanted to be human. Even in my attempts to offer information (and hope), I have felt a lot of these pressures rise – even where I wasn’t previously aware of them. Striking a balance isn’t easy. My hope is that the survivor community would continue to evolve and become a safer space, where it’s okay for anyone – no matter their status or role in the community – could speak up and ask for support when they need it, without their past contributions being devalued.