Posted on 21 August 2015 by Michael

the pain of reconciling personal responsibility and social justice

I broke down in my therapy visit yesterday.  I was bawling uncontrollably.  Trying to get words out as raw nerves had just been exposed … ones I was not aware were troubling me so.

I was unprepared for the gurgling up of passion and pain that minutes before were unconsciously deep in my brain and no where near my lips.  And then they emerged from the brain.  The sobbing started.   And I’m surprised I was able to say anything intelligible that would eventually lead to tools … or at least things to think about … to keep me on that bumpy path to better or stronger or whatever good word I can use to describe this path I am on.

I am told my some readers that my posts are raw and honest.  Okay.  And thanks.  But also I leave a lot out.  That’s somewhat for self-preservation and somewhat because I am struggling with a set of things that bleed out into a part of my world that I still haven’t figured out how to convey.

Without giving away too much — without getting too raw — let me just reiterate that I had a hard childhood.  My siblings as well as my family overall had it quite hard too.  In fact, they had it more difficult than me, and this causes me a lot of guilt (undeserved, I know).  That harshness, while not completely describing why and how I approach my profession, are huge contributors and quite obvious.

Homelessness “hits home.”  Not personally for me, but definitely “at home.”  Poverty is not something I struggle with personally now.  But it too “hits home.”  And I lived it.  I escaped it.  But some in my family still struggle a whole crap-ton of a lot.  I frequently see, hear, or (I know) accurately imagine what’s going on with my loved ones … family … as part of their daily life / struggle.

Some say, I have made it.  I own a home.  I am well off (although I often feel incredibly insecure about how it all could disappear if something happened).

But I also have not made it.  I am trying to make it.  My brain is a fairly wounded brain.  I know what poverty and a very difficult early childhood home life can do to a brain.  It is not pretty.  It’s possible (although not a guarantee) it has shaved years off my potential lifespan.  I know it has impacted my ability to remember certain things.   I know and can see how it has impacted my physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health.  And I know it has dramatically colored how I see the world.  Everyone’s childhood does that … I am not exceptional … it is just a fact.

But none of that gets near describing why I was bawling in my therapist’s office yesterday.  Why I was bawling as I debriefed with my wife in the car ride home.  And then why I returned home beyond even the type of exhausted I wrote about yesterday before this all happened.

I don’t know if I am going to get this right.  I hope my words can somewhat capture a small part of what I am struggling with.  But I’ve got to give it a go.

I find it difficult to separate the personal and the professional.

Sometimes this is a strength.  I can use what I know at my core to help inform the public’s understanding of poverty; it would be stupid not to use that.  Some people like that about me … I’d guess most people do.  However, I also know that some people find it uncomfortable (big whoop, get over it, poverty is not something to be comfortable with).

On another level, this taking things personally is sometimes unhealthy for me and annoying for others.

First, the annoying part.  I know my experience is just a small fraction of the experiences poor people face.  I need to be careful personally and publicly grafting my experience into much of what I see.  I grew up poor, in a very hard and harsh family situation.  I was / am the typical first-child caretaker forced to be adult-like in situations my brain was not ready to handle.  I grew up in both north Minneapolis and rural Wisconsin.  Most of my “knowing poverty,”comes through a rural experience; however the child-caretaker in a harsh family life bleeds through my whole life … still does.  On the poverty aspect, my family was often too proud to accept some of the help we could get.  But and thankfully, some of that pride — because of what welfare programs looked like back then — probably allowed us to escape some of the traps old welfare programs did impose on poor families.

(By the way, shame on the politicians who intentionally set thing up this way as a convenient way to divide the poor into camps and easily lay blame on those who accepted the help they needed and deserved … okay, they deserved more and better, but they deserved help.)

But my growing up poor was not every poor person’s experience.  And I get why some of my colleagues might be rightfully annoyed that my grafting my experience on so much could get old and annoying.  My experience was rural, not urban.  I am white; many who struggle in poverty are not and are forced to deal with crap-ton more baggage because different forms of racism and classism exist.  I’m a straight, and I am a man … again, some baggage I do not need to deal with.   Many I currently know have much more societal crap they must deal with / confront / bury deep within themselves to cope with life.

This rehashing of my experience is not so much to retell my experience.  It’s to set the context for why my brain is still so fragile when it comes to mental health and why I was bawling in my therapist’s office yesterday.

I’m afraid I won’t get to the juicy part … or at least I’m only going to skim the surface.

I need to and cannot help but be who I am — personally, professionally, and its intersection — and offer it up to the best of my ability when appropriate and healthy.

Here’s the rub …

Understanding social justice and advancing on that plane — where I devote my life’s work — at times completely runs counter to the advice on how to understand and advance in personal growth … healing thyself and helping others heal thyself.  It is a space I am desperately trying to understand and reconcile.

Few know this — because they rarely interact with poor people or issues related to poverty … or because they’d rather anyone struggling with mental health issues “just get over it” or deal with it silently.  I’m trying not to inappropriately mix the two because they are circles that don’t completely overlap and mental health problems overlap with many, many circles … poverty is just one of them (circles, that is).

Okay, again, few grapple with this, but human language and thinking can be so imprecise and so inaccurate to fully describing situations …

… the how to help someone personally while they also personally work for social justice.

Oh crap, I’m not going to be able to describe this yet.  I haven’t a clue how.  So let me just name some facts without trying put too much value or baggage on them in this post.

  • I know that we each need to take responsibility for our own life … if for no other reason than that no one else will or can.  But the baggage we force on struggling people … well, I just find it difficult to navigate how to expect responsibility while also demanding justice. I navigate it each day.  Sometimes pretty well, sometimes not.  But it is so difficult.
  • How does one do this appropriately and with the right amount of righteous anger:  (1) in a world where we need people to accept their responsibilities, their mountains to climb (2) in political reality that is so vicious, so inhumane, so belittling, and (3) in environments that are so uninviting to the intersections of personal growth and social justice (e.g. the unhealthy settings range from the our work office cube-lands, to impoverished neighborhoods some so-called progressives will never visit out of fear, to the punitive settings of prison that must hold people to account, but should also help prisoners prepare for life afterwards.)

(Oh my, if you could all see the tears I am shedding at this moment!)

I was somewhat cry-screaming these words at / to my therapist yesterday, conveying that I didn’t know how to gauge my own personal success regarding my own mental health or professional gains.  And I had no idea how to reconcile the tough-love advice she was giving me (and is incredibly helpful) with the cruel and uneven world we throw upon some communities, some neighborhoods, and (most painfully) millions of little kid’s brains.

How!  How do we move forward!  How do I move forward?

Gosh I am in a raw place.  I am so much better than before.  But this personal struggle to make sense of the world and my place in it …

… well, to end positively …

Let me just say that I am grateful that I don’t have to deal with some of the other things people struggling with Anxiety and Depression grapple with constantly.

I don’t not see my illnesses as my personal weaknesses.  I am strong and getting stronger to confront them.

I don’t see the fact that I need medication and professional help as a weakness.  I am okay that these will likely be lifelong companions.

And, I don’t see the fact that I am struggling with these issues as weaknesses either.  The struggle is just my wounded brain trying to make sense of and navigate a hugely wounded world / society that would prefer to simple prefer we all just accept it, bury the pain, and move on.

I refuse.  But in refusing, I’ll admit, I hurt.  I hurt so much.