Squirrel Papers & Permission to Speak
& the Bureau of Emotional Labor
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SQUIRREL NEWS NEWS
A week ago I stood in a freezing park in Seattle while a photographer snapped away. Keep your mouth closed, he said. Lean closer to the squirrel.
I tried to smile, but the blowing wind made it hard for me to keep my eyes open. A few people slowed their cars, saw what we were doing, and cackled. I told the photographer it comes with the territory. He laughed.
The photographer, a graying, chatty photojournalist named Alan, was capturing me for an upcoming Seattle Times piece, which published this morning.
The origin of the article traces back a few months, when a journalist name Esmy Jimenez contacted me. Back then she was working at the local NPR station, KUOW. She had found Squirrel on TikTok (which means the TikTok robot had recommended the video to her). Squirrel told her to take a breath, to get off her phone. So she emailed me. Fast forward a couple months, and Esmy contacted me from her new job on the mental health beat at the Seattle Times.
I was bummed it wouldn’t be a radio story, but then Esmy went and talked to KUOW this morning, so now it is (at the 20:00 mark):
I wasn’t sure what the impact of a newspaper story would be, but the answer is, rather a lot. Because it turns out that journalists read newspapers. And so do people with money to spare. Producers from KUOW and the local NBC affiliate emailed this morning. And I’ve already received two large donations today from new viewers.
I continue to walk in his fuzzy footsteps.
PERMISSION TO SPEAK FREELY SIR
In the last few years I’ve grown a lot at the rational, cognitive level. For instance, my basic self awareness is much better, I understand myself better. I understand mental health, trauma theory, polyvagal theory, attachment theory. I understand systems of oppression, like patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. I understand shame and vulnerability, thanks be to Saint Brené Brown (peace be upon her).
And yet my body lags. My body lives largely in the past. The past was scary, lonely, dangerous. And so my body continues to brace for danger, to be hypervigilant. Which makes it very hard to say, file a claim with my pet insurance, or make a plan for 2022. Because I am exhausted all the time. Even the most simple action requires me to wade through a thick sludge of inertia.*
*Inertia = Trauma. Discuss.
Also, in my art, my writing, my body yells: STOP! CEASE! DESIST! Because what I’m doing feels unsafe. Even my rational mind chews on the various angles. As a non-therapist, can my squirrel puppet speak about mental health? As a survivor/son/human being, can I speak about how I was hurt as a child?
So I am ambivalent, unsure whether I have permission to speak.
Ijeoma Oluo, the Seattle author who penned So You Want to Talk About Race, recently wrote about this territory in her essay Whose Story Is It to Tell? It’s the best consideration I’ve seen of the issues around writing about real people. One of the issues she discusses is stories of abuse. In this area she is unequivocal. It is the right of a person who has been abused to tell their story in any way they see fit.
“If you have been abused or harmed by the others in this story, you should be able to tell your story honestly and openly, without having to consider the impact on those who harmed you. If you are still in relationship with these people and want to continue to be in relationship with them, you may want to give them a heads-up so that they are prepared. But you as the person harmed have the right to claim ownership of this story and the person who harmed you has no claim over it. They alone are responsible for the consequences of their actions, including whatever fallout the open discussion of those actions may be. “
As I write this I can feel a roiling, churning energy in my chest, which is probably very old rage.
And yet, when I put finger to keyboard, I wilt, I lose all my strength. I’m afraid. What if I upset people? People dear to me?
Well, I can tell you, with what little I’ve shared of my history, that I have already upset people dear to me. Because, when I launched this newsletter, I used an old email list, which included a number of family members.
It took me about four years to build up the courage to write those first newsletters. I’ve spoken on this in the past, but for a while now I’ve felt that it is important for me to speak publicly about my experiences with childhood trauma and mental health challenges. There’s a Me piece: I find it therapeutic to make art of my life, even its darkest moments. And there’s an Everyone piece: I believe we as a society need to learn to speak about abuse, mental health, and other taboo topics. Because shame (and abuse, addiction, suicide, etc.) breed in silence. Because, while I am not an expert in anything, I know there are people who are a few steps behind me, and I can show them a few steps forward.
I knew that by speaking publicly I was also speaking to my family. I’d already communicated with some family members about my childhood experiences. I’d also told some of them I would be making art about these experiences. Nevertheless, when I published those first newsletters, I’m chagrined to admit I was surprised by the force of the negative response from my family of origin.
Perhaps it’s a blindness in me, born of trauma, a kind of paradoxical empathy. At times I can be much too empathic, anticipating the needs and moods of other people to an unhealthy degree. But sometimes that emotional data is too intense, and a part of me clamps down on it. The result: I can also be robotically unempathic, cerebral, Spock-like.
So I didn’t think through exactly how this would land with family. And it didn’t land well. My letters were described back to me as aggressive, shaming, hurtful. When to me, they are healing, illuminating, nonjudgmental.
There’s another piece, a hard realization for me. That I am behaving exactly as expected. That this drama playing out is the same one that played out in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a child.
From my research on childhood trauma, a common throughline: The child simply cannot fathom that their parents are flawed, wounded human beings. And so the child bends and contorts to appease, soothe, and serve their parents (for surely the mistake is with the child).
Part of this is performing heavy emotional labor for their parents. This carries into adulthood when the adult child breaks under the weight of their trauma and is forced to reckon with their childhood and their parents. It’s common for the child to reach out to their parents with this new understanding, with pleas for therapy and hard conversations.
It’s also common that these entreaties do not go well.
Because, and write this down:
The type of person who abuses or neglects their child is the same type of person who cannot show up for an accountability conversation later in life.
This is the very short version of the generational tragedy of a family stained by child neglect or abuse. It is the extremely rare unicorn of a parent who was neglectful and abusive earlier in life and then transforms later in life. The reason: Parents who harm their children are emotionally immature, and lack two critical emotional resources: empathy and self-reflection. Empathy is essential for healthy relationships. Self-reflection is an absolute requirement for change and growth.
So the professional advice from mental health folks in this space is that there is no happy ending, no repair. For the survivor, the adult child, there is personal healing, there is relational harm reduction, there is acceptance. But there is no earth-shattering admission of guilt, no arduous family repair effort, no weepy Hollywood catharsis.
And, the adult child can expect to navigate a minefield of painstaking healing labor, unwarranted guilt, and victim blaming for the remainder of their life.
And also. Maybe this rings a bell for you, maybe this sounds familiar. Maybe you’re in the midst of your own healing journey. I believe there are no healing templates, and no shortcuts to the end. (And honestly, no true endings either). Your journey is your own and you’ll need to walk it with your own two feet. You can read about what lies ahead, but there’s no substitute for living through it.
And, and: I can’t change you and you can’t change me. You’ll probably need to try a few (hundred, thousand) times before you feel this in your bones. Letting go of this has been, for me, an ongoing grieving process.
Five years ago I didn’t know any of this. Some of these lessons I am just now learning. And so I will continue to talk about it publicly, in the hopes that I can serve as lighthouse for someone who is still adrift in the dark.
I do so with strong demanding love, which includes healthy anger. But without judgment or violence, because they don’t serve anyone.
I do it for a scared, lonely boy in OshKosh overalls. I do it for the parent who, lost in their own damage, lashes out at their child. I do it for my childhood hero who killed himself in the woods. I do it for anyone who for whom love was the wound.
And I take my permission from them; I don’t need yours. I will speak.