I hope that it’s Healing

In my last journal entry, I concluded with the sentence, “I’m not sure about this ambivalence, but I hope that it’s healing,” and then sat for a while with that last clause. People who know me know I’ve struggled with mental health over the past few years. What I thought was a brief existential crisis in high school was one of many moments where I’ve been emotionally overwhelmed and struggled with how to move forward. Like many people, I suffered a breakdown in 2020 from burnout due to my job, the pandemic, racial violence, and the uncertainty and fear that seemed to overwhelm our atmosphere. That was the first time I had to accept that I couldn’t just push through and needed to reorient myself to recover and survive. Since then, I’ve been meditating on what healing means and how to use that understanding as a teacher, colleague, community member, and family member.

I’ve been thinking of this question of healing for a while as I tend to bond with other folks with similar or worse struggles. This seems to be a thing. If the kids on TikTok are correct, we seek out our own. As we share our struggles, I see growth, progress, and people developing new strategies. Still, there are always these moments when depression comes back, or the world is too much, and folks must pause and begin again. What strikes me in these moments is that the person suffering falls back where they started, as though they hadn’t made all those moves that kept them going before this new recurrence of their issue. From a particular psychological perspective, we can say that we fall into a script that we’ve developed about who we are as sufferers that overwhelms the new ways of understanding ourselves that we develop as we work through our problems. This thought leads me back to a critical moment I try to recall when I found myself in this position.

When I was working out in California, I remember calling a close friend worried about how I was doing at my job. Objectively speaking, my classes were going well, I had outstanding evaluations, and I was getting along with my colleagues, but my anxieties about the precarity of the job market, my qualifications, and that reminder that “black folks have to work twice as hard,” keep short-circuiting my ability to feel like I was succeeding. After I described this to one of my old friends from back home, he asked me a question that I repeat to myself frequently, “If you succeeded and finally achieved what you’d been working for, would you feel it?” That stuck me in place because I realized the extent to which my anxiety short-circuited my ability to ever feel like success was lasting or permanent. I’d shaped much of my perspective around Christian or Greek ethics, warning that excessive pride or hubris was a pathway to narcissism and failure. If you got too caught up in your own success, you were bound to miss something and slip up. After celebrating my wins, I took this idea too far and pushed them to the side to start the next stage from the bottom. In hindsight, approaching things this way set me up to disconnect my life into phases where I constantly had to prove something to get to the next step, only to repeat it again. I lost the continuity that showed that each step was an achievement and movement forward in a long chain of work and luck that led me along my life path. At that moment, I was just shaken.

Coming into the present, I think about how we almost have to trick ourselves into feeling healthy just so the experience of that feeling that things are or can be better sunk in enough so that we can pursue it. For someone who’s struggled with anxiety over several years, the stress and struggle become a fundamental part of their experience, like the weather. In myself and many of my friends, I’ve observed that moments of anxiety and depression are cyclical. They arise around the exact times as our experience harm, if it’s more recent. Sometimes the cycle is a response to a conversational or interpersonal trigger that sends a person circling to process the experience as positive rather than repeating a previous harm. We learn how to live with the trouble, and the risk becomes a part of who we are. The sense that we can experience things differently becomes challenging to hold on to because our feelings of happiness and joy are minimized in the face of the general feeling of fight or flight that comes with living with a heightened sense of vulnerability. The idea of being healed is hard to grasp from this position because I’m not sure it can be felt genuinely. It’s not that folks embrace their pain, sadness, or anxiety. It’s that they become part of their usual way of feeling.

As I continue trying to reorient myself, I return to that opening line and focus on the grammar. Healing is a participle. It’s an active process that is ongoing and not necessarily linear. Similarly to a wound in the physical body, shallow ones can scab and clear, but deep wounds and strains often reoccur. Some go away with physical therapy, but others remain nagging injuries we carry for the rest of our lives. So, rather than think about healing as “being healed,” a state where what’s hurt us has disappeared, never to return, it seems to be more of an ongoing process of working between the moments of happiness and struggle with a focus on the fact that those moments of joy belong to us and are evidence that we can feel better. A lot depends on our ability to find spaces and times to cultivate those moments of feeling where we can engage with who we are and express it through our actions.

In March 2023, I gave an invited lecture to introduce a film at a local theatre here in Amsterdam (shout out to DRIFT!). When I arrived, twenty people were waiting for the theater to empty from the previous show for our event. “Great,” I thought. It would be about the size of a good liberal arts seminar. I sat in the front row and had a last look over my notes. Right before starting, I checked my phone to see if a colleague had made it and saw a text. “There’s a line,” she said, “I hope I can get in.” I turned and looked; we’d gone from seminar to full-on public lecture. Both the floor and balcony were full. They told me the talk went well, and I felt as I spoke that I was grounded. I felt nervous but stayed reassured and focused on communicating with the audience. When I got home, I had my usual post-event adrenaline dump, where all the excitement could sometimes spill over into panic. Whenever my brain expressed doubts, I reassured myself that things had gone well. The material was good. Not all the jokes landed. But that was ok. Eventually, I slept it off.

I compare that feeling to my first “major” talk at a conference at the University of Chicago. The paper was fine, but I was jittery, couldn’t make eye contact with the audience, and felt absolutely unprepared when asked questions. That weekend I had one of my first career-triggered panic attacks, which have sometimes occurred after conference presentations ever since. Since then, I’ve learned that others have the same experience. I’ve tracked how my anxiety manifests in negative thoughts and feelings, which, as the people I love remind me, aren’t true. I feel for the first time in a while that I’m in a place where I can begin to acknowledge my growth and benefit from bringing all the selves I’ve been together. I hope this is healing.

All these techniques have required that I have the space and time for therapy, meditation, and yoga, conversations with friends, and the time to have experiences that let me feel free, loved, capable, and fulfilled. Knowing how little of this time most of us have, I’d argue that we must fight for everyone to have the time for healing and self-cultivation. A part of this means fighting for higher pay and less work time, along with vacation (sorely lacking in the United States) and paid time off for family illnesses, emergencies, and self-care. I’d even add early retirement. We need a universal healthcare system that provides free or affordable access to medical and mental health services to protect our bodies and minds. That’s not tied to work or labor but offered by the government. Healthcare in European countries has its strengths and weaknesses. Still, I’ve never needed to avoid a procedure or appointment because we’d go broke.

Individually, we have to practice making space for folks to breathe, think together, support each other, and use our common sense to step in when we feel like our jobs or other institutions position us to do harm to others. Beyond compassion, we should use our intelligence to decide when caring for people is more important than protecting harmful practices, the bottom line, and poor policies. Let’s find ways to help heal others as we heal ourselves.

Professor Michael Thomas is the author of this article. Michael is an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam. He was a Humboldt Foundation Research Fellow at JFK Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Susquehanna UniversityYou can follow him on LinkedInYou can also check out his website and other writings as well.

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