Today is the first time I’ve felt able to post more personally since the Covid-19 pandemic began. In fact it’s the first time I’ve felt able to write this way in the last four months due to the extent of ongoing trauma and upheaval in my life. I’ve been fortunate indeed to have the podcast with Justin which has felt like a safe-enough place to keep doing the kind of work I find most meaningful while I’ve had to be so inward-focused.
I want to write here about how I’m locating myself within this period of crisis and uncertainty. I’m hoping that it’ll be helpful for me to set out what I’m doing – and what I hope to do – as well as being interesting for regular readers to get a sense of what they might expect from me in the coming weeks and months. Perhaps it will also be useful for you to consider doing something like this for yourself: an ongoing – necessarily work-in-progress – manifesto for how you want to treat yourself, others, and the wider world, during this time. If you like that idea I’ve included a series of prompts which I’ve found helpful at the end.
Trauma on top of trauma
Coming into this global emergency on the back of a personal emergency is a strangely double-edged experience.
On the one hand there is a sense of yet another huge earth-shattering thing occurring on top of all the major losses of last year (work, love, home, and my oldest and youngest family members). There can be a sense of intense fragility when one rug is pulled out after another after another. There is fear about what might come next, and shame about having so little to give just when it is so desperately needed: in my families of origin and choice, in my local and queer communities, and in the wider world.
One the other hand, in some ways I feel I may have some kind of a jump on much that people are facing right now. I’ve lived in a state of uncertainty and constant rug-pulling-out for many months now. Of course I need to acknowledge that I have major privileges which are protecting me from some of the worst potential outcomes for now. Although self-employed I have something of a financial buffer and a safe-enough place to live in a town when I have supportive friends. That’s a huge amount in comparison to many and I am deeply grateful for that.
This privilege is enabling me to do a lot of personal practice around trauma, sickness, and loss, as those things occupy by body and mind. Some of where I’ve got to feels revelatory to me: helping me to shift the habits of a lifetime. I’m talking with others who have been in a similar place and learning a lot from them too.
I feel like I’m learning how to live, how to love, and how to work kindly and consensually, for the first time. At a moment when perhaps all of us are being called upon to relearn how we do those things, perhaps I have something to offer from the work I’ve been doing.
Compassion in troubled times
I imagine that many of us are struggling with the question of what we can offer at this time and how to balance self-care and care-for-others. I’ve found this idea from my main teacher, Pema Chödrön to be a useful touchstone. It suggests that there are three kinds of compassion:
- Compassion inwards is compassion towards ourselves which is a good and necessary foundation for daily life and also helps us recover – and increase our capacity – when we’re sick or struggling.
- Compassion alongside others is compassion where we’re kind to them and they’re kind to us in a mutually supportive way.
- Compassion outwards is compassion towards others when we have more to give than them, based on our particular capacity to offer, for example, financial, practical and/or emotional support.
It’s not that one of these is better than the others, it’s about recognising the need for a balance between the three, and also noticing which we need at a particular time, and focusing on that.
After what I’ve been through lately I realise that I’m at a point in my life where the first kind of compassion has become the most urgent, when previously I have perhaps focused on the other two. I’ve acknowledged many of the habits and survival strategies that have carried me through life so far, and how these have harmed me and others around me. It seems vital to turn inwards and address these habits and strategies now so that I don’t keep living, loving, and working in ways that cause harm. So I’m spending a lot of my time on therapy, on reading about trauma and recovery, on journaling, and on practising noticing the old habits come up and doing something different whenever I can.
I’m hopeful that the intense period of going through this process will come to a natural end at some point, perhaps followed by a sense of expansion outwards and having more to offer when it does. It can’t be rushed though. I’m discovering – as I will blog about soon no doubt – that this kind of work (changing the habits of a lifetime!) can only be down slowly, in its own time.
As I do this work though, I can tune into the places where I do have the other two types of compassion available. I ask myself regularly: What kinds of work and relating feel possible without old harmful habits kicking in? How can I live in such a way as to give my best to myself, to others, and to the wider world? For me some answers right now are that, while I absolutely could not hold therapy clients at the moment for example, I can certainly be of help to my writing mentor clients and a few others who I work with in this kind of way. While I can’t do romantic or erotic relationships at the moment – and other relationships with a history of shaky foundations – I seem to be pretty good at kind, consensual friendships, especially when I’m clear about my needs and boundaries.
The alongside kind of compassion feels very helpful to explore, especially given the need for collective forms of care and acknowledgement of our interdependence at times like these. I’m finding it really useful – for myself and for others – to hold sharing circles with friends where we each have time to feel and communicate where we’re at on a regular basis.
My collaborative work with Justin feels mutually nourishing and something that hopefully gives others something helpful. I’m keen to keep exploring with my collaborators – like Justin, Alex, and the Consent Collective – what we can offer together. I’m also keen to keep sharing the work of others who are engaging with this crisis in useful ways.
What do I have to offer?
I hope that this post might be valuable for those needing permission around the limits they’re experiencing on what they can offer at the moment. It’s hard to acknowledge these, but I remain convinced that overriding our self-consent and capacities in order to help others isn’t the way here. I think we’re likely to have much more to give – and less likelihood of offering things that are beyond our capacity or burning out – if we can recognise and allow for this. I’ll also be blogging soon about the idea that the way out of trauma and other mental health struggles can’t be the way that we got into them (i.e. non-consent or frightening or shaming ourselves). I think the same is true for helping others.
It’s vital to acknowledge the enormity of the current crisis and the impact that it will have on many of our lives, particularly those who are already the most vulnerable and marginalised. Within that caveat firmly in place I am interested to explore what might happen – individually and collectively – if we’re able to embrace the changes to our lives and what they can open up, as well as close down.
For those of us who are finding ourselves with more time due to cancellations and more solitude due to isolation, I’m interested in considering how those things might offer an opportunity for knowing ourselves more deeply and befriending ourselves in the ways that are vital in order for us to engage well outwards. Similarly, with so many of us sick, how might learning to care for ourselves and each other during sickness open up capacities for gentleness towards ourselves, and explorations of sustainable systems and structures of care?
On a wider cultural level I wonder whether there might be opportunities here to explore more consensual, collaborative, sustainable ways of relating, working, living, and caring for one another which have been desperately needed for a long time now, but which this crisis brings into stark focus.
What do I want to write about?
Over the last couple of months I’ve written quite a few blog posts which I haven’t yet shared. It seems that whenever I’m publicly open about some aspect of myself and get used to that, some other aspect comes forward which feels even more exposing to share. The latest one is trauma. The regular emotional flashbacks – and the impact these have on my immune system and physical health – feel very old and very vulnerable to write about. I do want to lift the silence now though – if I can – because I suspect many, many people are facing the same kinds of experiences in response to the global and closer-to-home crises they’re living through.
I’m getting a pretty good handle on how I can navigate flashbacks, sickness, and the background noise of fear and shame they leave in their wake. I’d like to share some of this in case it’s helpful for others too.
The other thing I’d like to share more is my plural work/play. Since publishing my zine about this two years ago, and my comic and FAQ last year, it has become a huge part of my life. It’s how I find kindness towards myself and how I navigate trauma responses but – more than that – nowadays it is how I do everything: how I write, how I live my everyday life, how I relate to others.
The current crisis is likely to mean that many of us spend far more time than usual in solitude. Here I wonder if – like the X-men mutants – those of us who experience ourselves as plural systems may have something to offer to everyone else. Many of us already know how to access soothing, caring, protective inner voices to help us through when crisis hits. We know how to ensure that time alone isn’t lonely (one of my selves would joke that you’re never alone with Multiple Personality Disorder, but there is something in what he says). For me plurality has been fundamental in navigating my way through trauma and I wonder if such explorations may be useful for others too. If so I – I mean we – are likely to be blogging about this more, and blogging more as dialogue between us too, so you’ll get to know the whole gang.
To conclude with a note to myself/ves, I would like to continue writing, talking, and reading about:
- Trauma and how to navigate it,
- Lifting out of fear/shame stuckness,
- Dealing with isolation,
- Befriending ourselves,
- Embracing uncertainty,
- Relating with one another kindly and consensually during hard times,
- Writing and creating during crises,
- How we can go about grieving the inevitable losses of the coming period – feeling the feelings for ourselves, for others, and for the world, and finding connection, compassion, and community between us through that process.
Locating your self during the crisis
You might find it useful to write, draw, discuss, or mindmap a similar piece locating yourself at the moment. It will certainly need to be a work in process that you keep returning to as things out in the world – and in you – change over time. It may well be useful to share this with those close to you, and to invite theirs in return. Here are a few prompts that might be worth exploring:
- What was my situation heading into this time? Where was I in my life before this crisis hit in terms of fragility/stability? What baggage/habits/survival strategies am I bringing into this time that might be valuable to look at and address?
- What are my specific needs and vulnerabilities during a time like this?
- What are my specific skills and capacities at times like this?
- What might social distancing and self-isolation open up and close down for me, knowing what I know about myself? How would I like to use any additional time/solitude that I end up getting?
- How might I ensure a balance of compassion inwards, compassion alongside, and compassion outwards? What does each of these look like for me? How much of each am I needing/able to offer right now (any answer is okay)?
- What ways of working and relating feel possible for me at the moment to do with confidence that I would be able to give my best, and not override my consent or capacity? How might I go about that?
- How might I collaborate with others to create sustainable systems of care for myself, them, and others through this time?
- What resources might I access to best support me in all of this?
Patreon link: If you enjoyed this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.
Plural tag: This post was written by Ara.