Have you ever been somewhere and just had to write down what someone said so that you could look at it again later?
Last week I kept writing as I listened to self-described "political artist" and long-time organizer Ricardo Levins Morales speak at the Deeper Change Forum in New Haven, CT. Ricardo spoke about trauma, the power of stories to divide, and applying the wisdom of farming and nature as applied to social movements.
In a series of blogs, I'm going to share what I heard and the truth that it points toward in my life.
Trauma & Self-Medication
Ricardo spoke of trauma, at its essence, as a loss of power; someone or something taking away your ability to protect or act. Having experienced this loss, we instinctively self-medicate. We do something to remove ourselves from the shame, pain, etc. The medicine may strengthen or poison us.
Almost simultaneously I thought of the group and individual levels in which this plays out.
For African Americans, the trauma of slavery, jim crow, segregation, and second class citizenship is enforced by state violence, lynch mobs, and individuals such as George Zimmerman. The threat is always there. As a group we tend to experience police killing of black men and women, boys and girls as a stripping of our power. We experience today's Confederate flag as a reminder of our severe loss of power as humans under slavery. We are frequently re-traumatized on social media. Not surprisingly, we collectively and individually create medicine/poison to numb the pain and/or to restore our power.
I see the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of medicine. Instead of internalizing the shame, people left their individual homes and took to communal spaces such as the streets, court houses, hospitals, schools, shopping malls, etc. to say no more shame on us, it's shame on you. Moreover, we exercised power as a group to demand the Attorney General, the President, the Prosecutors, the mayors, etc. take action to protect and nurture Black life. These demonstrations of power were often angry and fierce and led by younger generations.
I also see art created by groups such as Tribe One and my own Inspira: The Power of the Spiritual as medicine. I went to a Tribe One concert last November soon after the failure to indict the officers who killed Eric Garner.
Tribe sang songs of hope and grief and then created a song with the audience about what they were feeling and knowing. Using phrases like "No justice, no peace," "I can't breathe" and "truth and reconciliation."
Similarly, as part of Inspira, Matthew Armstead and I shared journal entries written during the Ferguson uprising and used chants from protests to build a soundscape along with our musical improvisation.
These performances provided space for us to feel our anger, grief, despair, and remember our power to do good. They resonated with audiences deeply because people already know they can affect reality but, as Ricardo says, "we've been brutalized into forgetting."
Ricardo's words also made me think of my individual trauma: childhood neglect and sexual abuse. As a child I coped with the loss of power by escaping into novels. I read anything we had in the house for hour. I also developed a highly self-critical voice as I strove to be "good." Feeling unsafe, I couldn't sleep at night. I denied sadness and anger and put on a "happy face." These strategies were somewhat helpful AND detrimental, my poison and my medicine. Today, when the trauma gets triggered I automatically go back to these standbys.
Thankfully, I've also developed some new ways to remember my power to protect and befriend myself. For example, I drink a lot of hot water. In fact, I take a hot bath. I write out my feelings. I share with a trusted friend. And, thanks to the 30 Day Meditation Challenge, I now meditate as a way to reboot. However, I'm not to proud to say that I take myself to a professional and cry it all out when the Big Feelings get triggered and I feel destabilized. Like the artist and the change maker, a counselor can render the invisible visible and accompany you back to your core.
Here's a challenge this week: Notice when you feel as if your power has been stripped away from you. What triggered you? What do you do to protect and strengthen yourself? Any poisons?
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