Self-care and social change

Published in Shameless magazine | May 17, 2012 | Circulation: 3,000

Self-portrait. David P. Ball

“Healing justice … seeks to lift up resiliency and wellness practices as a transformative response to generational violence and trauma in our communities” – Cara Page

Healing justice – what a beautiful and essential vision for our communities!

It’s a revolutionary concept – but as someone living with trauma, it just seems like common sense. Healing justice embodies both the need to resist oppression – as well as the urgency of fostering healing and liberation from the traumas so many of us carry into (and experience in) those struggles. In fact, the two are not at all separate but intimately entwined.

Last summer, I was both terrified and honoured to co-facilitate a workshop on trauma at the International Copwatching Conference in Winnipeg. It was scary on so many counts – and really got to the root of why it’s time for our communities to take healing justice seriously.

Why was I so frightened?

First: I couldn’t lead such a session without getting really – and uncomfortably – personal. I’ve lived with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for at least five years – since I reported from the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which killed 1,000 people, but also from repeatedly experiencing police violence against demonstrators here in Canada, and a roommate‘s suicide. And no matter how much my friends reassure me of how widespread PTSD is, I still can’t help but feel utterly broken and damaged by the experiences that have scarred me and undermined my trust in others.

Second: our workshop was one of the most highly attended at the conference – vastly escalating my anxiety. As the room got fuller and fuller, we kept having to widen the circle and fetch more chairs. Each new chair added to my fear that to speak about my experience would invite being “called out” by holier-than-thou activists who I was terrified might question and minimize the validity of my feelings.

Thankfully, none of it happened. Clearly, there was a deep hunger to talk about trauma and healing among front-lines organizers, who journeyed from across the continent to attend this conference on ending police violence. Participants spoke honestly of the trauma of racism, sexism, homophobia and more. Many spoke of police brutality, some of whom had experienced it first hand. People spoke of sexual violence, of colonization, of abuse. Others spoke of ‘vicarious trauma’ – that of witnesses, advocates and supporters exposed to others’ experiences.

Even though all the resources out there proclaim that trauma is a normal reaction – and survival tool – to unjust and violent experiences (in fact, author Pattrice Jones re-labels it “aftershock”), I still have internalized the notion that I’m a “bad person” for being overwhelmed by my experiences.

In fact, as a cisgendered man with white and class privilege, I am constantly struggling with the shame that I haven’t been “strong enough” or “independent enough” to better cope with violence I’ve experienced (as have many friends) – or worrying that I’ll be an emotional burden on my community.

When you think about those assumptions, they are glaringly masculine, aren’t they? Men are taught to be independent, unemotional, invulnerable strongholds. Emotional overwhelm is a weakness. Actually, activist communities tend to reward these masculine values of fearlessness, confidence, cold reasoning and strength – too often at the expense of mutual care, acceptance and compassion. Self-care is seen as somehow selfish; asking for help is seen as a drain.

Of course, feeling like a “bad person” – fundamentally “broken” or “damaged” – is precisely a symptom of PTSD. But knowing that, and believing it in one’s heart, are different matters.

My trauma has led me to retreat from the front-lines of social change. It brings up shame: for feeling entitled to walk away from activism, and for feeling overwhelmed in the first place. This shame is amplified by being aware of my privilege – what right do I have to back off, when others can’t afford to? What entitles me to the healing others are denied?

Thankfully, a lot of dedicated organizers are fighting to change this. Foremost among these are the KINDRED Southern Healing Justice Collective and the Icarus Project. In an article for INCITE Women of Color Against Violence, KINDRED’s Cara Page describes healing justice as “healing inside of liberation” and a “quest for what the role of healing is and how healers move us to and through liberation.”

“What keeps us resilient in our hearts, our blood, our bones?” Page asks. “What helps us to rebuild a home? How do we reclaim and re-imagine safety in our homes and movements?”

I’ve seen healing justice in action – in the form of regular check-ins and debriefings in organizations; in dedicated healing spaces at events; in the one-on-one support, listening and resource-sharing that happens in healthy communities; in respecting boundaries and celebrating self-care.

Finally, if you struggle with trauma, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself, and trust that you are good enough – and are definitely not alone. Healing justice isn’t a side-project: it’s actually revolutionary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s