I presented at my first conference this week, just under a month after finishing my Master’s degree and my associate’s license as a mental health therapist. Ever since a recent conversation I had with a lovely colleague and friend, Thaís Sky, my motto is: everything is information.
A side note, I have not blogged like this in years. My mind instantly floods to intimate thoughts during college and a very different, very religious tone. A conversation that has come up recently in various circles is this idea that no one wants to talk about how different many of us are now and how disconnected we feel from the people we used to be. Many of us have radically changed. I used to be a conservative, fundamentalist Christian. I used to blog as a space to sort of journal. While part of me wants this to be more professional, I also like the idea of it being a little warmer, I think that is part of the essence of blogging: it’s kind of meant to be an intimate story from writer to readers.
At this conference, I presented on my niche knowledge of OCD and eating disorders. I went into this conference — when I first applied to present — thinking small of myself. I, for so long, have believed I don’t have relatively many followers, and that belief influences my sense of my worthiness. That belief makes me feel like I need to earn my spot at conferences and to speak. That belief makes me think I should take scraps sometimes like free labor events and sharing of my knowledge built on my own healing work. There were some really beautiful parts of this conference that helped me out of the smallness.
Recently, I have felt a deep pessimism and almost hatred for listening to conversations about eating disorders. I feel outright annoyed. Because of that, my posts have moved slowly away from what my work was founded on, and that has not been met with very positive reinforcement. I am encouraged in my writing to come back to the posts I built my sort of brand on. I am asked to talk about eating disorder recovery. And all I can think is, “ugh, not this again.” And here it comes in, that everything is information.
I think part of the reason why I feel tired of talking about eating disorders is because I am beginning to see just how repetitive and exclusive too many of these conversations are. I am tired of hearing about recovery this, recovery that. I just do not believe in it, and haven’t for a very long time, I think. When I hear the stories of people who have been hospitalized in patient, all that comes to mind is, “no matter what, I was never seen in my worst pain; I am tired of hearing the subtle message that feels relayed that I wasn’t good enough.” When I am asked to speak about my own recovery, I grow dull; I am not interested in those conversations anymore.
What does bring me back to this work is conversations like this conference. When we have real and new and innovative conversations about trauma-informed care in every aspect of the work. When we talk about provider’s healing. When I am reminded that the signal that tells me “something is wrong here” and am taught by productivity society to silence that voice, that I might be on to something, over and over again.
I think I was the only Black therapist there. If not, definitely the only Black female therapist. I wanted to ask the audience “raise your hand if you can see someone who looks like you” or “raise your hand if you know another Black therapist… I could stop there, and I just know that this picture would be enough,” the very fact that I can ask that question is telling.
I love the work that I do, and this presentation reminded me of just how present intrusive thoughts are and how much grieving I have to do with the fact that even if I separate from OCD clinically, it will continue to show up in my every day life. And that is pretty frustrating. A colleague of mine, Jen Cope, once shared with me that when working with clients with OCD, we have to remember the importance of compassion for how hard it is to live with those thoughts and to make space for grief. I never heard this before, and so I never had the opportunity to grieve just how much OCD takes from me. It takes away a huge chunk of my feelings of worthiness. I may know how to validate myself and self-soothe, but I rarely get to revel in the feelings of doing something I feel good about. That is grief. Therapy can teach me how to ground myself and check the facts, it can allow me to address and tone down the noise of intrusive thoughts, but it doesn’t (or hasn’t thus far) allowed me to just feel good for a long collection of moments.
I heard every good thing I needed to hear. I began to believe for just a few moments that I may have been okay, that maybe those really beautiful and deep words might allow for me to really experience some of the deep calm and knowing others talk about. But just a few hours later, as I tried to sink into that grace and connection, I found myself in the same loop:
“I should have left on a good note, with everyone thinking positively of me. But I let my guard down too much and allowed myself to feel like I could be myself, and now they are left annoyed, with a bad taste in their mouth.”
“That was really good and sweet to hear. It wasn’t superficial, it was such honest response and reassuring. But what if I get it wrong very soon; the stakes are higher now for me to be good and better.”
Thirdly, the vulnerability hangover: I feel uncomfortable having put myself out there. What if I said something that I brushed over and someone looks back and tells me it was harmful. Despite telling everyone that they can cope with hard things, how in the world am I going to cope?
It is like everything I taught comes flooding back to me — all the ways I forgot I am affected — partly because I never had the space to grieve and acknowledge the constancy of uncertainty. It is not just one exposure, although that is hard enough on its own. It’s moment by moment, one after the other, no wonder our minds are exhausted. This conference made me feel connected, but the underlying hyper-vigilance makes me feel exhausted and over-stimulated at the end.
I will not end on a note that ties things up in a neat bow. I will end on the intrusive thoughts, because that is the reality of it. I worry that when I feel safe enough to be myself, I annoy others. I scan for and anticipate the feedback I will receive: I talk over others. I don’t always have the right answers that align with my trauma-informed approach, which continues to grow as I learn more. Intrusive thoughts are overwhelming and annoying.
And compassion tells me, I did really hard things. I made bids for connection. I showed up and I feel discomfort, ready to retreat. And I wrap myself in a warm hug and stay.