Heal the Healers
Today we have a guest post from Purvi Shah, a writer and poet who recently facilitated a wellness session entitled “Imagining Our Wondrous Selves” at a Joyful Heart Heal the Healers event in New York City. Today, Purvi shares her reflections on why writing can be a practice of self-care, self-revelation and self-liberation.
In 1628, with his “Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill,” Dutch artist Pieter Claesz offered a grim vision of our human destiny. As the description in The Metropolitan Museum Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History informs, “Here a skull, an overturned glass roemer with its fleeting reflections, an expired lamp, and the attributes of a writer suggest that worldly efforts are ultimately in vain.”
Claesz’s painting presumes our disappearance and the disappearance of our labors. In this view, even the writer’s fate is to be forgotten.
When we come to writing, we often imagine we must pen (or type!) something that stands the test of time. But this view elides what writing can enable in one’s present life, how writing can serve as an act of healing or moving towards self-recognition and wholeness regardless of how long the writing—or even such feeling—lasts. Claesz’s dour painting may strangely liberate us to focus on the present, free from the shackles of future benefits or the illusions that we need everything to last.
As an anti-violence advocate and writer, I seek to support us in “Imagining our Wondrous Selves.” Through the dynamic Heal the Healers program hosted by the Joyful Heart Foundation, I had the privilege of leading amazing advocates in envisioning how writing can be an active practice of self-care, self-revelation and even self-liberation.
We began with an activity where everyone shared one aspect of what they considered to be an element of love. With the disappointments of this world and especially everything we see in our work fighting violence against women, we are often attuned away from envisioning and naming love. And when we do not name, we unsuspectingly erase what exists, as well as what is possible. As advocates spoke about trust, support, validation, openness, mutual respect, being silly and so much more, we were able to create an affirmative heart of love—what it means to us and what we hope to take forward and create. This word cloud served as one anchor for our writing and wonders to come.
Another anchor included small journals I had brought for advocates to use during the session and to take home to continue the practice of writing and self-visioning. Images of flowers, birds and other delights graced the journals. Some of the journals also had images of superheroes. While we often think of other heroes, such as people we admire—including the survivors we work with—we don’t often think of ourselves as the heroines or heroes of our own lives. Indeed, women are so rarely even seen as heroes. The journals served as a reminder we ourselves must do so and take note of it.
One of the core exercises I led involved each healer describing a moment in which she or he felt perfect. At first, attendees struggled to conceive this feeling, as if the feeling were impossible. I offered ideas of what could be felt as perfection: moments of bliss, of feeling complete, pure delight. Slowly, everyone was able to delve more deeply and write of some experience they viewed for themselves as perfect. Advocates were then paired and each person asked their partner questions about the experiences the other had written about. From these inquiries, everyone was directed to expand on their original writings. After refining their work, attendees shared these pieces or segments of them.
Though my exercise sequences were very brief, a world of ideas and revelations opened. The workshop allowed one advocate, “to remember how much I used to love and benefit from creative writing.” Advocates new to the idea of writing as an active practice spoke of integrating journaling into their self-care methods, seeing that there are “simple exercises to use in my own practice and for myself.”
On a more fundamental level, the writing workshop demonstrated how we are creative beings and blessed to be so. One attendee revealed, “I learned that I have some creativity and I should be using it more often.” Another shared, “I thought I was not creative enough to write but now I know I am/it does not matter.” For these participants, writing tapped a creative place in themselves and fostered a new power of self.
While some advocates discovered their creative sides, others re-discovered voices they had missed. “I was reminded of my first love of writing,” remarked one attendee. Another remembered that writing doesn’t have to be ‘perfect.’ Because we are afraid of falling short, we so often prevent ourselves from acting, even before we have started. The beautiful aspect of writing as a self-care practice is that we cannot fall short if we carry the spirit of an attendee who marked that “writing can help in the healing process.”
Indeed, writing may not only help heal but also work to recover and discover our selves. Writing as an active practice—even with simple exercises—can give us permission not only to be ourselves but also to know our selves more intimately. “It helped me to ask myself questions,” one participant admitted. Another advocate affirmed, “It helped me to remember not to be so hard on myself and I need to create an outlet to let some of my deeper feelings out.”
The act of self-reflection through writing and asking questions—which we can always do even by ourselves!—enables insight. One attendee noted, “I benefited from a new awareness about creating a dialogue with myself.” Another attested, “It was a reminder for how important it is to use self-reflection and to think about issues in different lights through different mediums.”
This dialogue through the use of writing, sharing, and questions enabled one attendee to “get my body & mind as one,” showing us that an inquisitive writing practice can help us to be in tune with our emotions and deepest selves – and to suture ourselves to wholeness. Writing can work with us to show more of our selves to ourselves and to others. As one attendee observed, “It reminded me how closed off I am and I need to work on that.” Another mentioned, “I don’t usually put myself out there. It was helpful for me to be able to share with the group and to feel truly engaged.”
As these advocates powerfully share, writing, when seen through the lens of healing, can offer a tuning of our selves to our own emotions as well as a greater openness to the world around us. For anti-violence advocates, this is a fragile but vital space to open. It is in this space of expansive possibility and asking radical questions that healing, new knowledge, and solutions can surface. Or as one attendee beautifully revealed, “I realized [there] is a thing/moment/activity I do/have in my life where I feel fully perfect. I never knew I had this before.”
Even as we aim for the world we want to live in (as we do each day and must continue to do so!), as a practice of self-care, self-revelation and self-liberation, writing can enable us to see more fully what we have within us already and how to be perfect where we are. In this space, we can meet ourselves and others with love and wonder.
Purvi Shah’s Terrain Tracks (New Rivers Press, 2006), which explores migration as potential and loss, won the Many Voices Project prize and was nominated for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award in 2007. She is the winner of the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Services Award in 2008 for her work fighting violence against women. In 2011, she served as Artistic Director for Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight the voices of Asian Americans during the 10th anniversary of 9/11. She believes in the miracle of poetry and the beauty of change. You can find more of her work at http://purvipoets.net or @PurviPoets.
“I began to engage in the issue of domestic violence prevention almost 30 years ago,” Rose Kirk begins. Kirk has worked in the telecommunications sector for approximately 25 years.
As the President of the Verizon Foundation, she oversees a generous philanthropic budget that awards grants to non-profit organizations focusing on education and domestic violence prevention. Kirk also oversees its employee volunteerism program, which has placed almost 10,000 participants who have provided nearly 750,000 hours in volunteer work to about 8,100 organizations nationwide.
But that’s only during regular business hours. Kirk has also sat on the Board of Directors for the National Domestic Violence Hotline for about five years. She currently serves as its chair, a position she has held for about two years.
Rose Kirk: The issue of domestic violence prevention became very real to me when I was 15 years old and witnessed my sister, a young bride of 22, being abused. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I knew it was wrong, demeaning and something I would never accept as a natural part of any relationship. My crusade for change began then. Since, I have worked in the domestic violence prevention field in Arkansas, Alabama, Texas and New Jersey. I’ve trained members of speakers bureaus, sat on panels, served on boards, donated money, clothing and whatever other resources I could. Currently, I’m privileged to lead the Verizon Foundation, which includes domestic violence prevention as one of its signature causes.
Reunion: What services and programs does the Verizon Foundation provide? Who are your clients and partners?
RK: We provide grants, programmatic development, technology and employee resources for our domestic violence prevention efforts. The Verizon Foundation awards approximately $67 million a year to non-profit organizations across the country and abroad. We focus the majority of our giving in the areas of education and domestic violence prevention. In addition, the Foundation strongly supports the volunteer activities of Verizon’s employees, providing a grant of $750 to a non-profit when an employee volunteers 50 hours to the group in a calendar year.
We also work closely with Verizon Wireless on the HopeLine from Verizon program, in which Verizon collects no-longer-used cell phones and accessories from any provider and uses those phones to support victims of domestic violence, either with grants funded through reselling the phones or by directly providing phones and free airtime to shelters. Since 2001, HopeLine from Verizon has awarded more than $10 million in grants and collected more than 8 million phones.
We work closely with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, National Family Justice Center Alliance and Futures Without Violence [formerly the Family Violence Prevention Fund] in our domestic violence prevention efforts.
Reunion: What do you find most challenging about this work?
RK: There is so much that needs to be done, so many problems that need solutions. When we meet with our partners to discuss grants or partnership ideas, we’re often talking with people who have personally experienced domestic violence, and listening to first-person stories of the horrors of domestic abuse is so difficult. I’m always astounded to think that this abuse occurs so often in every community in our nation, across socioeconomic conditions.
But to have the best opportunity to bring about lasting change, we are very precise in focusing our funding support. Unfortunately, that means we sometimes have to say no to very worthy programs, to these people who have experienced so many awful things. But our hope is that by strongly focusing on this issue, we can bring about substantial positive change, allowing us to move on to tackle the next item on the world’s to do list.
Reunion: What are you most proud of and what have you found the most rewarding in this work?
RK: I’m most proud of the collaborative efforts of the Verizon Foundation team and our many tremendous partners. This is tough work. There’s always more to be done. Ending domestic violence is not something that will happen immediately. It’s a long-term process that includes successes, and failures along the way. I’m proud of the effort we have shown and the progress we have made so far. The success of the documentary Telling Amy’s Story was immensely rewarding as well. The documentary was produced by Penn State Public Broadcasting and funded by the Verizon Foundation. It tells the story of one of our employees, Amy Homan McGee, a mother of two small children who was shot and killed by her husband.So far the documentary has aired on more than 300 public broadcasting stations across the country and has been used as a training tool on college campuses and by the U.S. Department of Justice. Knowing that we were able to help bring this story to light and spread its message to millions of people across the country has been incredibly rewarding.
Reunion: How do you think this work has affected you personally?
RK: It has in so many ways. Both my husband, Robert, and my 10-year-old son, Connor, are finding ways to get involved in domestic violence prevention. And everyday, my work is a tribute to the life of my sister, Benita.
Reunion: Do you have regular self-care or wellness practice?
RK: It’s multi-layered: eating well, working out, relaxing with a good book, sneaking in cat naps when I’m traveling from one engagement to another and staying connected to my family at all times. Robert and Connor shore me up.
Reunion: At what point, if ever, did you realize the importance of self-care?
RK: I subscribe to the airline mantra: put your oxygen mask on first. The minute I became a mom, I realized it wasn’t going to work in the household if I didn’t take care of me first.
Reunion: As you mentioned, this work can be hard on people who do it. Has the Verizon Foundation established any mechanisms to deal with burnout and vicarious trauma or to nurture an environment that promotes self-care?
RK: We’re a step removed from the advocates on the front lines working with victims of domestic violence every day to rebuild their lives. Because of that, we can’t really compare what we experience to what the advocates in the shelters or the courtrooms experience. However, we do believe it is very important to provide employees opportunities to take care of themselves, through on-site gyms and personal trainers, generous healthcare benefits, numerous wellness programs and by offering generous vacation time.
Rose Kirk is the President of the Verizon Foundation and Chair of the Board of Directors for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
People engaged in trauma work will encounter suffering in profound and intimate ways. Social workers, law enforcement professionals, doctors, nurses, therapists, community organizers, advocates, along with many others, all play an important role in helping survivors of traumatic events address and heal from their experiences. While most of us feel privileged to play a role in the healing of others, this sense of purpose and accomplishment doesn’t come without a cost. The repeated exposure to stories of violence, abuse and suffering often begins to affect our sense of self and our view of the world. We experience what is often called “vicarious trauma.”
At Joyful Heart, we recognize and have tremendous respect for those who help others cope with trauma. Our Heal the Healers program was designed to address the issue of trauma exposure response that can result from their work.
Our program’s mission is to make each of us more aware of how we are impacted by witnessing and responding to the suffering of others, and to help professionals explore their own trauma exposure response and introduce them to self-care tools and practices.
We do this by first educating professionals about the impact of vicarious trauma: exhaustion, numbness, a sense overwhelm, cynicism or feeling like we are never doing enough, among others.
Once we have identified the signs, we introduce therapies that engage the body through movement, the mind through creative expression, and the spirit through group sharing experience. In a safe and nurturing environment, modalities we may use include creative arts therapy, guided writing, body work, yoga and meditation, music, dance, movement, play and mindfulness. Our goal is to help professionals restore balance and renew their sense of hope and possibility.
Our Heal the Healers program has been developed in collaboration with researchers, wellness practitioners and clinical consultants, among others, as well as our partner Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and material from her book, Trauma Stewardship.
Today we’re introducing Healing is Happening, a new series featuring the caring professionals who do this work. It is our intention that by sharing their stories, we inspire not just the professionals in the field to take care of themselves while taking care of others, but also the courageous survivors for whom we do this work.
“Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.”
–Michel de Montaigne