About a year and a half ago, I had a complete physical and mental breakdown. Breakdowns don’t all happen like they do in the movies, and mine was not a dramatic 5150 Brittany Spears ambulance run. No, my breakdown slowly happened over time, where pieces of myself were chipped away, over and over – small and large – until I could no longer create patches large enough to cover those missing places.
When that happened, I broke. I made a choice to seek help and endure, but the first six months mainly consisted of lots of crying and immobility. This, as you can imagine, was confusing and frustrating for my family, given that I was the one who usually took care of most things. I was diagnosed with PTSD, with severe anxiety and depression.
The pieces of myself that were lost has left a person that wasn’t there before. I am not the same as before my “Big Crisis” (the Giant Snowball of Doom precipitated by lots of crises of varying sizes). I have a different nervous system now. I like and dislike different things. For a long time I mourned that person that was lost. I used to like research. It now sends me into a panic. I used to like to write about history, but now I think it’s stupid and worthless. Not that my words are necessarily worthless, but that the very act of any kind of “academic” endeavor is spit in the wind. Meaningless. Ashes. And I have a Ph.D. in History. So, what do I do now? More importantly, who is this new person and how do I make her “work”?
When you’re faced with this kind quandary, you go back to the well of what you used to know. As you can see from the previous entry on this blog, I attempted to further my work in the analysis of violent extremist organizations (VEOs). Attempting this just led to another major shut down and my voice was entirely silenced as a result. What was this blog about? What was I about? I went in circles with my therapist. I railed and mourned and flailed. I played a lot of Candy Crush.
Last summer I reached out to someone whose work meant a lot to me. For years I had used his work to orient myself, and to give myself something of a “road map” along my evolution as a human person in the world. Lots of people know of Chris Vogler’s “Hero’s Journey” memo, which then became “The Writer’s Journey.” Maybe people don’t know that Chris is also an awesome person, full of compassion and thoughtful introspection. We had initially connected after I appeared on a Chicago ABC7 piece on “ISIS and Hollywood.” He contacted me and we reached out to get his thoughts on the work of ISIS using the Hero’s Journey as part of its recruiting messaging arsenal. Early on in that project, I had also used the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey to approximate an internal recruiting process for both VEO’s and even mass shooters. An original fan of Star Wars and a reader of science fiction, this structure resonates for me in ways that helps me orient my personal perspective and muster resources when I need them.
Anyway, I reached out to Chris to let him know that I was recovering from this breakdown, and that his Hero’s Journey guide had always helped me, and was continuing to help me frame my experience and recovery. That maybe he didn’t intend it to be used as a personal “road map,” but that I had hope for myself because of his work. I didn’t expect him to reply, but he did, and we began a conversation.
One thing that Chris said to me – and I don’t think he’d mind me sharing it – is now guiding my current actions and future plans: he said that we needed to use the Hero Journey map “for good.” To do good with it, not evil. That’s what motivated his choices in life. ISIS used it for evil. I want to use it for good.
Chris has been parts mentor and “threshold guardian” for me, acting as both and encourager and challenger. But encouragement and challenges are like counter-acting oars when the hero vessel is still without a rudder. So, I went dark while I considered what that meant for me.
To do this, I needed to strip away what I hoped and wished for, my illusions and ambitions, to meet myself where I was at. To see myself for what and where I was now, not how I imagined myself to be or wished I was. To find, or rediscover, the tools I had and start to rebuild with them, as imperfect as they were and are. For me, it was recognizing that the Hero’s Journey was still a useful tool, and one that still profoundly resonated for me.
I heard the other day, about women who had suffered greatly, that they went through a transition from the victim status to survivor status. (I just Googled this, and I guess it’s an actual thing? Because there are a lot of results about it and I had no idea.) I hadn’t realized that there was any distinction. You can be both a victim and a survivor, right? They’re not mutually exclusive. Right?
Then I realized it was a matter of perspective, of self-identification. I always resisted the idea that I was somehow a “victim,” even though my pain and injury consumed me. But I didn’t know I had attained survivor status until I realized that my pain did not occupy me *most* of the time. When I recognized that, I was able to alter my perspective. I’m not quite yet to “Hero” of my own story, but then, maybe that’s a matter of perspective, too. I’m not yet ready for that self-identification.
Parts 2 and 3 of this entry will talk about next steps, and using this medium to continue the story. I want to help the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements keep momentum, and maybe even offer a way to help these stories reach a tipping point, an undeniable aggregate. To unleash silenced voices and tell the stories of quiet heroes. I don’t know what I’m doing here, and there’s no right way to do this. But maybe telling my story will help someone else take the first steps to healing? I can only hope.