Until recently, I never identified as someone who went through childhood trauma. Dysfunctional family dynamics – oh yeah. But trauma? No. Until I started learning about it and talking to my counsellor, Andi. 

She knows my psychiatric diagnoses but also all the juicy details of my childhood to adult history. “What you experienced is called complex or relational trauma.” She told me. 

“But trauma is,” I piped in, “physical, emotional or sexual abuse or neglect, right? Like I need to be the recipient of it to ‘qualify’.” 

“Not exactly. What you described are examples of trauma, but trauma encompasses more than those.” Huh? This was news to me. 

What is Complex Trauma?

Andrea Schneider MSW, LCSW quotes Dr. Ron Doctor, psychologist: “complex or relational trauma can arise from prolonged periods of aversive stress usually involving entrapment (psychological or physical), repeated violations of boundaries, betrayal, rejection and confusion marked by a lack of control and helplessness.1

Oooh-kay…maybe I’ve been wrong. 

Still, I tend to dismiss what I experienced. Sure, as a child I witnessed daily rage and emotional abuse between my parents. But I wasn’t the target of it. 

Both had mental illness, but my dad was ‘only’ depressed and anxious. Yes, my mom had bipolar disorder and talked to me about wanting to die. But she never attempted suicide. 

My parents lived in a pretty much loveless marriage, but I felt loved, in a precarious kind of way. I felt scared most days, but loved at the same time. 

Ok, that does sound pretty uncomfortable and confusing even to me.

But it’s been years since all this happened. I’ve done lots of therapy.  It can’t be running my life STILL? 

Others had real abuse. You know like getting hit, sexually molested, living in poverty. Others had it way worse.

Ron Doctor’s definition describes trauma in a new light. One that makes sense to me. One that validates why I still feel haunted by the basement cobwebs of my past. 

It’s true, others suffered abuse I can’t even imagine, but that doesn’t mean what I underwent was any less significant or painful to me.

I’m cautious though. There’s a danger of overidentifying with being a victim of trauma. It can unintentionally perpetuate the learned helplessness I want to escape. 

Regardless, to create a calmer, healthier life and more positive relationships I’ve discovered I need to face the pain without clinging to it and find new behavior patterns.

Attachment and Healing

As a result of trauma, wounding to secure attachment can occur. PsychAlive explains that attachment is “the particular way in which (we) relate to other people. (It’s) formed at the very beginning of life, during the first two years.”2

Though I felt loved, and I was taken care of in a haphazard manner, this didn’t protect me from developing what is called an insecure attachment style. Oh, gawd. I know, more labels. But it has actually helped me create a coherent narrative.

There are different types of insecure attachment, and often we are a combination. I discovered, I have a mainly avoidant style. There’s also what’s called disorganized attachment. Though I don’t fall into this form, I relate to how this kind of attachment originates. 

Dr. Lisa Firestone, Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association explains “Disorganized attachment arises from fright without solutions. A child may experience repeated abuse, neglect or scary behaviour from a parent or caregiver as life-threatening. 

The child is stuck in an awful dilemma: her survival instincts tell her to flee to safety, but safety may be in the very person who is frightening her. The attachment figure is thus the source of the child’s distress. In these conditions, children often disassociate from their selves. They may feel detached from what’s happening to them. What they’re experiencing may be blocked from their consciousness.  A child in this conflicted state develops a disorganized attachment with their parental figures.” 3

As an adult, at times I feel overwhelmed, swallowed up by my feelings (no wonder I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder). I disassociate easily. Terror comes up when I face anger or even disagreement. 

It can trigger me and render myself and my needs invisible. In order to find some semblance of internal safety and relief from the tsunami of fear, I’ll capitulate to others needs and wants (whether they are asking me to or not). 

But this is changing. And the good news is it CAN be changed. 

I’ve healed some of the behaviors and continue to transform the ones still hanging around. It doesn’t serve me or those around me to stay stuck in patterns of unresolved trauma and unhealthy coping tools. Is it messy, hard and painful work? Yup. But it also feels essential to free myself from what has unconsciously been driving me. 

I get impatient though. Do you? I’ve been doing this thing called ‘talk therapy’ for years now. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do it. Shouldn’t I be further ahead? Shouldn’t these patterns have dissolved already? But I know the answer. 

Clichéd but accurate: it’s like a snake shedding its skin or peeling layers of an onion. Though I’d rather have less slithery, stinky metaphors. How about…a rose bush? Stay with me. 

Healing trauma or recovering from mental illness, or both, is like caring for a rose bush year after year. Each season, buds bloom. Then the plant is pruned (parts no longer needed are removed) so that next year’s flowers are even more lush. 

In the tending of the roses, the thorns may still prick but over time both the flowers and the plant get healthier and more lovely. That’s what I hope anyway. That’s what I’ve been told. That’s what I’m beginning to experience. So I keep the faith and continue gardening.  

© Victoria Maxwell

References:

1 Schneider, Andrea  (2018, January 22) “What Is Relational Trauma?: An Overview” retrieved November 29, 2019 from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/savvy-shrink/2018/01/what-is-relational-trauma-an-overview/ 
2 PsychAlive “What’s Your Attachment Style?” retrieved November 29, 2019 from https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/

3 PsychAlive “Disorganized Attachment: How Disorganized Attachments Form & How They Can Be Healed” Retrieved September 7, 2019 from https://www.psychalive.org/disorganized-attachment/

Wabi-sabi. (Whah-bee/Saw-bee). C’mon say it with me. I know you want to. 

Just saying it makes me feel a little better. These two strange words and the concept it encapsulates, has changed the way I look at failure, my mental health, my life, humanity. Seriously. I was introduced to it by the same dear friend who sent me the link of the Thich Nhat Hanh recording about bringing kindness into mindfulness which I wrote in this post.

Yes, she is one wise woman, this friend of mine! You know who you are. 

What is wabi-sabi? Contrary to what I thought it was, it’s not related to wasabi or sushi. Though it is of Japanese origin. 

Derived from Buddhist teachings and ancient Japanese philosophical ideals, wabi-sabi is a world perspective centered on the acceptance of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. 1

Doesn’t that bring you a little bit of relief just reading that? 

Another term for it is ‘flawed beauty’. The modern translation might be ‘perfectly imperfect’. 

The Japanese art form, Kintsugi reflects it brilliantly. Kintsugi is the process where cracked pottery is repaired with gold lacquer to highlight the beauty of the imperfection or damage rather than hiding it. 

Why have I found this idea so powerful? Because in our curated Instagram lives, it celebrates imperfection that inevitably is part of life. That’s my kind of world view. 

When recovering from mental illness, or an addiction, or let’s face it, just plain living life, mis-steps are part of the process, not an exception to it. Like the saying goes: Progress not perfection. Its approach to beautiful messiness is a pragmatic and compassionate one. An approach that, particularly with the creative process or the onslaught of depression, can be sorely absent.

I introduce this concept in my creativity playshops. You’ll also have a chance to experience it in my *FREE* webinar Catalyst for Creativity and Courage: Intro to Telling Your Stories on October 25.

I partner wabi-sabi with an improv exercise that underlines the very essence of it. No, we don’t thwack each other with blobs of gold paint or break glasses and put them back together again with glitter tape. It’s called the Failure Bow.

The Transformative Power of the Failure Bow

The ‘failure bow’ hails from the world of improv, but has wider applications than just on the stage. It, along with understanding wabi-sabi, can reframe failure as part of success and the creative process.

The idea of celebrating mistakes has taken off even in corporate settings. You can find variations of it at MomsRising’s “joyful funerals” for failed projects or FailFest as organized by DoSomething.Org. Beth Kanter’s article explains them in more details. 

Innovation and creativity die if stifled by the fear of failure.  Recovery can be stopped in its tracks, and the joy of living can too if perfectionism isn’t tamed. 

Here’s the exercise. Do it and I guarantee you’ll feel a little happier.

 ‘Failure Bow’ (takes less than 30 seconds) 
1. You can do this alone or in a group.

2. Stand in a ‘super hero’ pose. You know, we all have one – even if we haven’t done it since we were 10. Feet hip width apart; hand on hips, chest out, head up and an ear to ear grin.

3. Then lift your arms in the universal “V” victory position and happily, shamelessly, proudly say: “I failed!”

4. And… you guessed it…take a bow (don’t shy away from it – full on bow, bending at the waist – several times if the spirit moves you).

5. Then if you’re in a group, everyone else around you claps, whoots, and hollers for you, celebrating your gaffe with you.

Variations: 

In the Moment Failure Bow

As soon as you’ve noticed you’ve made a mistake – immediately do the failure bow to counteract any self-judgment that might rise. The smile alone will help.

Intentional Snafu Surrender Bow 

  • Before you get into your super hero pose, think of a mistake you made that you’re still hanging onto (big or small doesn’t matter). 
  • Get in your super hero pose holding that mistake in your mind.
  • As you lift your arms, imagine the energy of that snafu running up your arms to the tips of your fingers.
  • As you yell “I failed” and bend over to take a bow, imagine all the energy and emotion of that mistake drain out of your hands and surrender into the earth. 

Why does it work? 
1. It helps us redefine failure, Ted DesMaisons, Stanford University instructor, suggests, it can “(lead) us to more productive action or more empowered choices going forward.”

2. According to a Beth Kanter’s 2013 Harvard Business review article it “alters our physiological response to failure by removing the demons of self-doubt and self-judgment. Without those holding us back, we can be more flexible and improve results and learning.”

3. Both the wabi-sabi ethos and the simple failure bow exercise gives a positive view of mistakes preventing us from falling into immobility and self-condemnation.

4. They offer a psychological and physical approach to fully embody failure as part of creativity, success, work and life. 

Through wabi-sabi and the failure bow we can learn, flub by flub, to take ourselves and our mistakes less seriously and increase our self-compassion.

Here’s a filmed version of me explaining the Failure Bow. Send me YOUR failure bow videos.

Let’s unite in the love of our failures and create a FAILURE REVOLUTION! The world will be a kinder, softer, more perfectly imperfect place because of it.

© Victoria Maxwell


1 Koren, Leonard (1994). Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press. ISBN 1-880656-12-4.

September is fast approaching. In light of this, I thought it apropos to write a post regarding accommodations for students with mental health issues in a post secondary setting. 

Creating accommodations help students who have mental illness reach their academic potential. Whether you’re advocating for yourself, or helping to advocate for someone else here are points to keep in mind.

1. Accommodations are a right, but are negotiated.

2. Determine what changes would be most effective for your specific illness or illnesses. It may take some experimentation.

3. Role-play asking for the accommodations to gain confidence before actually requesting them.

 With few exceptions, teachers and schools are very amenable and experienced in accommodating students with disabilities. As part of the American Disabilities Act and the Canadian Human Rights Act, they have an obligation to fulfill reasonable accommodations requests.

Dr. Sarah Helm, Diversity and Inclusion expert, cites “according to the National Center for Education Statistics, individuals with depression, mental, emotional, or psychiatric conditions now represent approximately 24% of college students with disabilities and have become the largest cohort of post secondary students who identify having a disability” (Helm, 2012; NCES, 2009).

Despite this, fellow students and teachers still can lack understanding, sensitivity and patience. The more comfortable you are with your mental health needs the easier it will for you to communicate with teachers. In the classroom, you are not required to disclose what illnesses or disabilities you have. But you will need to be able to discuss what accommodations will be helpful. You can, if you choose, to disclose voluntarily. But that is a decision that is very personal, and should be made carefully.

There are both informal accommodations (strategies students can implement on their own) as well as ones that are formalized through disability services on campus. Two people with the same condition may not need the need the same classroom strategies. Here are a few examples of formal accommodations:

– Due date extensions

– Time extensions on exams

– Quiet and/or alone place for taking tests

– Ability to complete work at home

– Advance notice of course expectations

– Study buddy or academic coach

– Alternative forms for assignments

– Alternative types of study resources

– Pre-arranged breaks to get fresh air and move around

Dr. Helm explains “counseling centers and disability services offices have been increasing their level of support for students with psychiatric disabilities; yet despite these existing support structures, students are not seeking assistance from disability services offices due to fear of disclosure and the negative stigma” (Collins & Mowbray, 2005; Helm, 2012).

So it is imperative students with psychiatric disabilities understand they have a right to reasonable accommodation as well as protection from discrimination stemming from stigma. Colleges need to recognize that insidious stigmatizing attitudes towards those with mental illness have subtle yet far reaching ramifications. On-going dialogues about mental health and mental illness on campuses are crucial so stigma and it’s consequences are lessened. In doing so, students can be propelled from the fear of disclosure and requesting support to the freedom of accommodation and academic success.

 An excellent resource is the Higher Education Support Toolkit: Assisting Students with Psychiatric Disabilities from Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.article continues after advertisement

© Victoria Maxwell


 References:

Helm, Sarah PhD Career Development Experiences and Employment Concerns of Job-Seeking Students with Psychiatric Disabilities PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2012 http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/1304

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2009). 2007-2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS: 08). Computed by the Data Analysis System (DAS-T) Online Version 5.0 on June 29, 2009

Collins, M. E., & Mowbray, C. T. (2005). Higher education and psychiatric disabilities: National survey of campus disability services. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75 (2), 304-315.


Bird Nerd I am.

I’m a bird nerd. They make me happy. Just watching them hop around, flitting here and there, puts a goofy smile on my face. I really love watching the ones in those small wee groups, like juncos, sparrows and robins. Oh and chickadees! Who doesn’t like chickadees? They’re so plucky!

And how cool is that to be named after the sound you make! Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Wait that wouldn’t be so good for us humans, would it? The sounds we mostly make are burps and farts. Yes we talk, but our ‘organic’ noises aren’t our voices.

Anyway, moving on… I found this scientific tidbit about watching birds (see below to geek out on the research). It confirmed something I was already experiencing.

Simon Science Says: Just Add Birds!

Watch birds – any kind – from a window, in a garden or around your neighbourhood. Doing so is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety & stress, according to a study from the University of Exeter in England.1

Everyday I work at my desk in my home office. I’ve purposely positioned it near a window that overlooks our back porch and old growth trees. Each morning I dribble a little bird seed on the railing. The aforementioned juncos, and others, enthusiastically gobble it up. See photo. Each time they jostle, doing their version of bird sumo wrestling to get access to the best feeding point, I smile. I feel like they’re my feathered co-workers. I don’t have to do anything except watch. I get this happy, present-moment-kind-of-feeling seeing them. Life feels simple and that feels good.

Try it out and see if you get the same benefit.

What does Simon Science Really Say?

According to a University of Exeter study which involved hundreds of people from both urban and rural settings, being able to see birds from windows, and on a daily basis around their neighborhoods, was associated with reduced rates of depression, anxiety and stress.

Drawing from the ‘attention-restoration theory’ which posits that being in nature, and even simply watching nature, promotes healing and lessens stress, researchers explored the potential benefit of nature to improve mood.

The researchers found no correlation between the species of birds seen, but instead the number, indicating that seeing common birds such as robins, crows and blackbirds on a regular basis is a key factor.

Evidence shows it’s not about identifying bird types, but instead, interacting with birds.

The UK Health Spectator rightly cautioned that “while the correlation between mood and nature was highly significant….(doesn’t explain) the cause of the relationship. For example, do happier people actively seek nature more or does a lack of exposure to nature lead to higher rates of depression, or is there some other factor?”2

As a fairly low effort and no-cost tactic that potentially could reduce anxiety and depression and boost mental wellness, it’s worth a shot, I’d say.

Do you already do this? What’s your experience? If you haven’t, try it out and see if you get any benefit. Email me or comment below and tell me!

For more Mental Health resources, tips & tools, sign up for my newsletter.

© Victoria Maxwell

References

1 https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/2/147/2900179

2 https://health.spectator.co.uk/just-looking-at-birds-may-help-to-keep-you-happier/