We heal the path by running it: on trauma, storytelling and survival

When the stories came, I listened, but not really.  I would listen to a survivor’s story, but to listen and to honor it are two different things.  I know that now, and feel that to my core.  I realized the reason I wasn’t able to listen to the stories was because of the pain.  This story is how I overcame that pain – and found my strength in doing it in an unlikely source.

When #metoo happened, I hadn’t thought about how the global movement against sexual violence tied into my own work as a designer.  Part of my failure – or regret – of my professional world has been to integrate how to be a designer in with larger movements for social change.  For many years, I felt like being a user advocate by interviewing people or that using user centered design was ‘enough’, or my way to trying to make better systems by better designed products.  If I had a political or social justice interest, well, don’t bring that to 9-5.  I would proudly identify as a feminist, but worried what I could say and to whom about my beliefs and stories.  When people talked about not being able to share their whole selves I would nod – my stories of identity around sexual orientation, experiences of power, immigration, political beliefs were all stories I likely didn’t share.  On some level I didn’t always trust the audience hearing my story, something I see now had very sad origins as a result of trauma and truth.

At some point, of course, I realized that was a bit of a lie – that being a ‘people centered designer’ was enough.  It’s not enough.  I had specifically picked my graduate school – The New School – and my program – at a design school about challenging ourselves to create better systems.  Although it was a tough experience and a tougher time to be in school, my time at a school devoted to social change made me see how much politics played a role in not only design, but so much of everything we do.  And having faculty who pushed us to critically view the world and push for social justice as the heart of our design practice wasn’t just a good ‘business decision’ as social justice work grows as a movement in intersections in social innovation, but because it was the right thing to do, ethically, to be citizens of the world.  I see now that the posters on the walls challenging racism, tying in sexism and intersexuality, fighting for a just world – made this school the perfect choice because I fell in love with politics again because of my school.  As much as the hashtag was #ParsonsPride, it was the #NewSchoolPride, too, that made me swell with pride that my ‘group’ and school had a love of political and social change that has made me feel hope for the first time in many years.  Even if the systems we work with are immense, change can happen in them, and we can help midwife that  change. That is a debt I may never be able to repay other than through my work.

As I finished school and my thesis, I started my next chapter, including creating the thesis site to share my work, seeing the fight to reduce stigma against mental illness as another form of social justice centered around disability pride.  I have begun to talk about my work in particular as work in ‘social design’ – that so much of this is either researching vulnerability, people in pain, people struggling in something, and my role in designing a way to help them.  I began to see stories as I heard more and more of #metoo – stories in my past where I had interviewed stroke survivors about medication.  Stories where I listened to someone complain about the stress they felt in a high pressure situation, struggling to keep up with technology that fought her ability to come with information.  Stories where an organization wanted to help girls make social change in their community, but struggled with how to tell their story.  These stories weren’t specifically #metoo, but I began to see them as a form of social movements, my research jewels, my northern star that shaped the heart of every single thing I’d do.  More than just what I’d use as personas or for user stories, these stories became the way I would understand both the world of systems and how people thrive – or don’t thrive – within them.  As much as I was interested in designing something to help people, the process of honoring those stories was a sacred space to me of immense healing.  Little did I know that stories would continue to have a profound effect on me on a far deeper level.

When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stood up and swore an oath and began to tell her story, I wept in pride, in respect, in sorrow, and in fear.  It remains an incredible, iconic image – a woman putting her hand up to testify, her eyes closed, seemingly searching to find some inner resolve, perhaps trying to take a deep breath and prepare herself for not only the incredible challenge sharing of an intimate, painful story, but to do so on a global stage, motivated out of a sense of duty.  Suddenly the power of story become very real, raw and intimate.  I could see how a story could (hopefully) shape policy.  And on hearing her voice, her pain and her fear still so many years later, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time – I sat down and cried.  I had always been objective listening to stories as a design researcher, able to put my professional hat on, interwoven with equal parts empathy and objectivity. But I cried. Not only for far too many family and friends who shared their own assaults and complicated recoveries from them, but for my own pain, buried for far too many years, and for seeing how for all our complex solutions, nothing hits us quite in our soul quite like a story.  It’s a consistency, our remarkable need for stories as a way to understand each other, heal each other, learn from each other, love one another.

I began to understand myself from her story.  Hearing her story echoed so much of my own sexual assault – someone I knew, in my teens, in a house, alcohol present, music blaring, one person assuming consent, the other person devastated by what happened.  That person whose actions changed my life would reveal to me later he saw nothing wrong with what he did or the act of people using one another for sex, consenting to or not.  It took me a long, long time to heal from the experience; I took longer to go to college, felt for years I was to blame – I mean, a skirt? Going to his house without his parents? What was I thinking, clearly? More than thinking anything about it, I buried it, only very rarely thinking about the assault.  I became thankful that memories become dim, although in retrospect I wonder how much of that experience shaped my experiences of trust and storytelling.  When the onslaught of #metoo began, I nodded silently. Yes, I know. Yes I know these feelings, this pain.  The hardest part of #MeToo wasn’t the complexity of understanding the individual and the collective in storytelling, but rather that it was a reminder that a scar can be ‘healed’ well over a wound, but it takes very, very little to remove that scar –the drip, drip, drip of stories could remove the healing I thought I had by burying it.  It was both an emotional erosion that both gave me joy – finally, voices being heard, strength in numbers by forming a movement– and sorrow, a reminder for all my progress and confidence I’ve learned, it can too quickly dismantle and you’re back to the state of pain and confusion from assault and remembering how foolish, weak, vulnerable and violated you felt.  Hearing Dr. Blasey describing those moments of memory – ‘pinponging down the hall’, the laughter, the awkward encounter afterward, the mannerisms of teenagers – shook me.  I cried listening to her story for what she went through, what I went through, for what too many others went through.  While storytelling has had a remarkable effect in so many domains – from international development to social media to how we create personas and make our movies – somehow the storytelling of pain shapes us so vividly, a technicolor way to see what we often hide. It’s almost too much, but so necessary.  I remember during my thesis that the most effective ways to change an individual’s way of thinking about mental illness isn’t a public service campaign – it’s when you know someone and their story and their journey. And there are many, many incredible efforts in mental health and wellness, disability and illness rights and sexual assault that integrate storytelling as part of healing.  The act of voicing a story, sharing, learning, and cultivating the practice of active listening are core to all of us no matter if we’re healing from trauma, helping someone in our life with struggle, or helping in our professional roles to make systems more responsive, resilient, humane and better, however we define it.  During my thesis I had envisioned the creation of a service that would allow communities of those with a mental illness to come together for storytelling activities as part of healing – something we see the power of with #metoo.  Indeed while it’s online, we still have metaphorical campfires to share our stories because the act of storytelling is healing – both for the listener and the storyteller.

So what is the next chapter in the story? What kind of endings can we gain, when our stories are ones fraught with pain? I’m by no means a speedy writer, but have a certain flow or goals I want writing to flow; for this, the number of starts and stops pushed five, no doubt a little worried of how public I make my story, and the effect of any of our stories.  Regardless of the outcome of Dr. Ford sharing her story, I think a great deal on the healing that comes from telling a story, and the healing that comes with finding new ways to experience our stories – how our work as designers and makers and thinkers is not just in our main medium, but in shaping stories into our lives in both new mediums and new ways of thinking about storytelling.  I explored this literally in my thesis – how to embed stories into vases we hold in public – and I think more and more how those stories need to be integrated into our lives in new ways, more publicly, and how to explore writing new ones and ways to share them without becoming overcome by the pain.

My next chapter involves a voice pushing me forwards.  Part of that voice is my own, and another part is of a woman pushing me gently along as I walk the path forward.  She sings to me in a happy kind of motivational voices – not too pushy, but still nudging me forward.  As I’ve looked for better ways to cope with the complexity of the world and the complexity of my life, I’ve taken up running; while I’m nowhere near the ability to be running up any hills, I’ve found an incredible transformation in no small part to the voice of Erin, one of Runkeeper’s audio coaches.  I see that running is now a new medium for me to write my story, away from a computer and a whiteboard.  I put on my shoes and water bottle, do a few quick stretches, slip on my earphones and start my walk outside.  Eventually she’ll give me her same cues in sing-song – ‘alright, and if you have a little bit more in the tank you can try to. If you can’t, that’s fine’.  Or her call to start the next run – ‘let’s go, let’s go’.  Or her sharing the mantra – ‘You are strong, Erin. Be strong.’.  Her stories reveal that even when she’s ready for a race, sometimes she doesn’t feel strong, but she’s getting there.  Set your intention, do the work, write the story, tell it.  To set your intention, to stop and ask why you’re doing this.

You are strong, Erin. Be strong.

I think of how #metoo is about the sharing of stories, of invisible communities, of people standing up and speaking truths, and of that voice beside me, helping me to find myself and my strength.  Erin reminds us, so importantly, that running, like all fitness, is as much mental as it is physical, that our bodies are often able to keep on, but it’s our mind that needs to be dragged along.  The complexity of our relationship with our body and mind is a fraught one for many; that the boy who attacked me loved to run in school on all the track teams and hockey teams and sports doesn’t escape me, either, but I’m learning to look past that, because I have my own run to think of.  I started out seeing him on my run; now I only see myself and see my own body and my road ahead. My own body issues arose so much out of my assault, of not feeling like I could trust anyone, that on some level, my body was the source of pain and assault; what running has done has made me fall in love with the potentials of my own strength, my core, my stories and my body again.  Erin is helping me to find my own voice and ability to tell a story, through a story I write with my feet every time each foot hits the pavement, me typing my new story step after step, heavy breath and inhale, moving forward, stronger as I go forward.

She shared her own thoughts about harassment in the public space while exercising, not an unusual experience, myself experiencing similar catcalling – and how we keep running in a world that sometimes is hostile to our efforts to make ourselves stronger:

 

What do I deserve? 

I deserve to be treated like a human, not just a woman, because that means something different these days. 

And us women, what do we deserve?

We deserve not to feel silenced by your yells.

We deserve to feel empowered for bettering ourselves.

We deserve to feel sexy in our own skin without feeling like we’re here to bait you.

We deserve to speak out without the threat of you lingering on our minds.

We deserve to run outside.

We deserve to be judged on our merits, not our outfits.

We deserve more. A whole lot more.

I’ve told these stories to many friends. And the more I shared the more my female friends shared too. And so many of their stories are worse. So much worse.

I want you to speak out. I want you to break your silence. I want to hear your stories. 

 

Erin Bailey, new heroine

 

In this picture of Erin, you see what strength is. I’ve found strength complicated for how it is set up far too often as a contrast against weakness, but in this image I see strength from training, dedication to fitness, determination, achievement, and storytelling. Sharing her story and strength, and inspiring others to find their own strength, to have moments of feeling vulnerable, and to know that strength within us can be regrown, healed, and regenerate. It is the strength of other women which will help me heal myself, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In learning to tell my own story and to be a physical presence in the world and to be comfortable with that, well, I’m under no illusions that a run can change the world, but it can help me change myself to be a stronger self.  My run in the morning is my time to help me understand my story, to gain strength and attempt to create a sense of equilibrium. I keep thinking lately of the words of one professor in grad school, John, who told us about self- care as a part of social justice movements – how we need to think in the longer term, how we can steel and help ourselves survive and endure long periods of stress if we become resilient. Running as a way to view the world and rewrite my own story step by step and help survive and endure is helping me to look at myself in new eyes, not only as my body changes through running, but how my mind does as well towards resilience. I think of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who apparently loves to sail.  I think of her on a boat one day in the future having shared one of her most painful stories, hopefully able find healing as her boat moves forward through the waters near San Francisco.  I hope she can find healing in the same way running has helped me heal. The story isn’t just in the telling, but in the movement, too – that with running, it’s to just keep running on your path, moving forward, even when you don’t think you can.  I hope she also knows that there are many more silent sailors in their own boats beside her, their own scars often raw but healing, that she is not alone on the sea.  There’s a cavalcade of boats behind her and beside her just as there’s a group of silent runners beside me.  Sometimes I see them at 7:30 on a cool morning in the fall, these runners pushing their bodies towards a kind of healing.  The stories and the ability to persevere are on the faces of every runner I pass.  We quickly nod, or give a quick hint of recognition – in a split second a runner’s story.  You are running, too.  On this journey.  You’re fighting, just like me.  Keep going, my eyes tell them.  You got this, you’ll get stronger.  I see you. I validate you. I am beside you.  I’m hurting to.  I can see you’re hurting, too.  We’re hurting together.  But you’re not alone.

They help to pick me up when I stumble on the concrete, urge me to go when my legs want to stop, give me that push forward as I walk my path by running. At some point, I don’t know if the voices are those of other survivors, or of the voice that was there, strong, all along – me.

 

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