Sunday, September 6, 2015

Deep Listening Matters

A sermon by Katherine Henderson, delivered at United Church of Gainesville on September 6, 2015 as part of a collaborative service with Senior Minister Shelly Wilson.

I am honored to be here with you today, in dialogue with Shelly and all of you. My name is Katherine Henderson. I am a self-employed urban planner and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida. My husband Barron is an Assistant Professor at UF, and our two sons are four and seven. Our family was a part of another large UCC church in North Carolina, so when we moved here three years ago we were thrilled to discover the United Church of Gainesville.

This service is about the transformative power of listening. And this sermon is about listening to the truth about racism and white privilege as spoken by people of color. I offer these stories with humility and an open heart, and the hope that we can continue to listen together.

Over the past year, the shattering realities of systematic police violence against black people and the burning of black churches have finally broken through to me. I am from a primarily white suburb of Boston where we thought it was impolite to talk about race, preferring “color-blindness” to actual discussions of difference and inequity. I moved through the world cloaked in white privilege, viewing racism as a primarily historical and individual problem. The past year’s tragedies shook me awake to the fact that racism is much more systemic and insidious than I had ever imagined, and that through my ignorance I was part of the problem.

So when I heard about a new online course by Patti Digh called “Hard Conversations: An Introduction to Racism,” I signed up. We have explored, through readings, videos, interviews and conversation, everything from the problems with “color-blindness” and appropriation of black culture to institutional racism in our healthcare system, schools, criminal justice system, workplaces, and neighborhoods. This is not only the stuff of history; this is today’s reality. And it is hurting all of us.

A few weeks ago, as part of this course, Melanie DewBerry spoke to our class. Melanie is a professional speaker and life coach who is also a woman of color. Her words were directed right to me—a well-meaning white person scared to talk about race, afraid to be wrong, to offend or be embarrassed. Melanie said: “You are only afraid of the conversation [about race]—I’m afraid in my car, in my home.” Her fear is in response to countless incidents of bias, suspicion and violence against people of color for such offenses as sitting outside too long in their own cars. And then she asked us, the privileged, to “Listen to these stories—to the way these stories serve you. Be conscious that while you are receiving privilege, daily, scores of people will never receive it.”

At the end of the call, Melanie said to Patti, the white activist organizing the course: “If you were standing here in front of me right now, I would bow to you.” She offered this virtual bow in gratitude for the deep listening she had received from Patti and, through her, from hundreds of others. Melanie was grateful for the courage of all these listeners, and for the respect her story received. Being heard did not rewrite her experience, but it did lessen her suffering, at least for that moment.

When we really listen, as Patti did for Melanie, we create a sacred space. We meet the God in another person, and they meet the God in us. The Quaker concept of Inner Light says that in every human soul there is implanted a certain element of God’s own Spirit. This element, known to early Friends as "that of God in everyone", or "the seed of Christ", means to Friends, in the words of John 1:9, "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world". [1] When we listen to each other with humility and empathy, the “true Light which lighteth” every person in the world spreads and grows, bathing us in its peace.

This kind of deep listening does not come naturally to most of us, because our brains are wired to run from any kind of pain, whether physical or emotional. My favorite way of running from other people’s pain is offering unsolicited advice. Instead of communicating love and support, my solutions sound more like “If I were you I would already know how to fix it! So let’s move on.” Actually listening to someone else’s pain with an open heart, without thinking about what to say next, or trying to solve their problem, is a skill that does not come naturally to me.

Sometimes, after just a little bit of listening I get impatient. I jump from ignorance to arrogance, suddenly qualified to figure out the solutions myself and jump into action. Lost, again, is humility—and lost is the transformation that could have occurred, if I were willing to stay in discomfort and let that discomfort be my teacher.

Every one of our human relationships and communities offers opportunities for us to learn through discomfort. Sometimes, in a fit of such discomfort, I will pray, as the great Anne Lamott has taught me: “Help.” And, as you may have discovered, God rarely responds with clear instructions or answers. Instead, God offers us deep listening: "Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you." (Jeremiah 29:12). God does listen, and she listens well, even if sometimes I am frustrated by the quiet. God is the best deep listener I know.

On another August evening, I sat at my computer to participate in a virtual conference for the “Hard Conversations” course. We watched a clip from the 1994 movie “The Color of Fear,” in which a mixed-race group of North American men gathered for a dialog about the state of race relations in America. In this clip, we saw an African American man named Victor Lewis become passionate as he spoke about his experience. Finally, he yelled across the room to the white men: "I'm not willing to trust you until you're as willing to be as changed and affected by my experience and transformed by my experience as I am every day by yours."

Silence. The white people in the video listened, deeply, and so did I. It hurt. Just sitting there, twenty years later, my blood pressure rose and my throat tightened. I wanted desperately to scroll through Facebook rather than finish watching the video. But I sat there and listened, because deep listening matters. I took in his words, with humility, as truth. I am beginning to know what I don’t know about systemic racism, and I’ve started listening deeply enough to be changed.

Listening is not always enough. Sometimes a particular situation demands not just our empathy, but also a reply or immediate action to avert danger or harm. But as we speak and act in service of equality for all people, we must keep listening, deeply, to let their experience and voices guide our action, rather than our own ego and judgments.

Deep listening can’t bring back a loved one, or years lost to pain and anger. But it can lessen suffering, making space for connection, healing and hope. And if we listen deeply enough to be transformed, we might learn how to walk forward together.

Will you pray with me?

O God of the true Light that lighteth all the people of the world: please give me the strength to listen, deeply, to the joy and pain of others, including people I already know and people whose stories I have yet to hear. Give me the strength and humility to seek out these stories, to hear them and be transformed. And when the time comes to speak out, direct my words and actions by your grace toward peace and equality for all. Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Solstice

Today is the shortest day of the year, and I welcome the darkness. It conjures my childhood in New England, safe in my parents home. Also the long days of studying for college exams, my anxious brain fully occupied by the rigors of organic chemistry. And then, huddling by the heater in our Maine apartment, ocean view through icy windows. 

Darkness is for hibernation and reflection, for waiting and for resting. But for many, the longest nights are the hardest, long lonely stretches without the warmth and companionship of sunlight. Sometimes the hope is hard to feel. So I offer this reading, adapted from sermons by Bill Dols and Douglas S. Long:
Since forever, the winter solstice has marked that moment in darkness when the light is reborn. The world tilts, the days slowly begin to lengthen again, and a glimmer of hope appears. When the morning solstice light first strikes, the dead of winter is past and the god of life is returning.
The truth of light breaking through at the darkest hour of the longest night spans history and crosses continents. It is also as close as the sighing of a broken heart when a dream is shattered, a hope broken, a promise violated and trust breached, a marriage unraveling or dead, a body aching and diseased, and when death comes to claim those who we love and need the most. The sacred moment is not when darkness flees or vanishes but when finally, after a long winter, the light is rekindled in the darkness and even the dimmest possibility of new life awakens.
The dimmest possibility of new life... that seems achievable. We are not waiting for perfect. We are waiting for hope.

This week I found great hope in the idea of kindness. Sometimes I can't muster love, or even acceptance, and this feels like a failure. But even through the hazy lens of self-centeredness, I can often muster some kindness. On the receiving end, it feels a lot like love.

This year I had the great privilege of turning inward and offering myself some kindness, in the form of honesty and writing this blog and engaging a whole team of doctors and therapists. I found some answers, with names like sensory processing disorder and (most recently) under-treated hypothyroidism. And this is all good. This is not a tragedy, and I'm getting better.

Thank you to each friend, known and unknown, for the kindness of reading along. You are not alone, and neither am I.

Image credit

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Everywhere and Back Again

I am officially back. Not just at home, but BACK: showing up for this life, in which I am many things--sensitive and smart and mentally ill and also brave.

Summer in north Florida doesn't actually end until mid-October. But down here, everyone goes back to school in mid-August. Because what else is there to do, really, in this heat? So as of this week, my summer is officially over. And it was a big one.
Japan, 2001

Summer 2014 was my most ambitious since Summer 2001, in which my long-distance boyfriend (now husband) and I graduated from our respective colleges, toured Asia for five weeks, and then moved to Maine together, with no jobs. It was awesome and also awful. All of these crazy transitions kicked my anxiety and sensory issues into high gear, and at the time we didn't understand the symptoms or know what to do about it.

This summer I was on the road for around five weeks, spread between five different trips. The biggest adventure was 10 days in South America (Colombia), immersed in one of the most beautiful landscapes I've ever seen. It was my first international trip in eight years (Cancun doesn't count), and our first with the kids. The kids also came with me on a roadtrip to North Carolina, and we closed out the summer with beach and family time in southern NJ.
Colombia, 2014

So how did we do, with all this travel and stress and excitement? Overall: pretty damn good.

The kids were interested and excited and generally flexible. They managed to eat and sleep well in many different settings. I kept up with exercise and took my meds and napped and went to bed early. I practiced telling friends and travel companions what I needed to stay sane, even when it seemed lame. On the road trip I was able to bring my weighted blanked ("heavy blankie"), 15 pounds of awesome that helps me feel calm and sleep better. My stress-related ailments were limited to a brief emotional breakdown, a round of cold sores and some extra hair loss.

Yes, okay, my body is calling "time out" on travel. But it was all very worth it. We came home physically weary but deeply refreshed.

The whole thing was a victory, really. A triumph over the previous six months of physical and emotional pain. And though it is hot as hell here, I can still feel the cool breezes of the Andes, the evening chill in my parents' backyard, and the salty cold of the shore.

Monday, June 23, 2014

This is Not a Tragedy


We don't have brain space for everything, and the human memory is notoriously inaccurate, which is actually fine by me. It's more about the style of internal movie you want to create. I'm going for an "indie comedy" that is actually funny and ultimately upbeat, rather than an ultra depressing production that really should just be called a "weird drama."

My internal curator, the one who controls how I record my life in memories, has a rather dark world view. He wears a brown '70s suit and smokes a cigar in a darkened room while watching the movie reel of my life. His job is to decide which segments are important and how intensely they will be remembered. Unfortunately for me, his primary artistic themes are fear, rejection, and shame. Some particularly bright memories make the cut just for contrast, but mostly he selects material about how things went wrong.

This guy fancies himself a pragmatist, but I think he's just scared, and maybe with good reason. He is trying to protect, in the only way he knows how, those exiled parts of me that are deeply wounded from a lifetime of anxiety and hyper-sensitivity ("Sensory Processing Disorder"). So he weaves a cautionary tale via memories like:
  • The way that friendships ended.
  • My long dark days as a new mother. 
  • Rejection by high school crushes. 
  • Recoiling from my partner's touch, unsafe in my own skin. 
  • The sensory overload of the city.  
  • Getting teased on the bus. 
  • Chronic pain, both physical and emotional.
Okay so no one's life is perfect. And there is value in remembering and learning from pain. But in my case the curator has gone way overboard on this point. He has neglected the fact that my story is also, and more generally, one of good fortune and abundant love. Even light-heartedness and joy! My photo albums and memorabilia support this side of the tale. Sometimes I come across a forgotten old picture and am blown away by both the happiness of that memory AND the fact that I ever forgot it. Thank goodness for physical documentation of all my sweet and hilarious people and experiences. And thank goodness for the family and friends who have remained in my life or showed up again, even in passing, reflecting back a happier "me" than I can see from the inside.

I've just started trying to rework the memory reel to bring back more of the good stuff. I'm also trying to celebrate the best of the present as it happens, deliberately recording it in full color for posterity.

Because this--my life--is not a tragedy. This is a funny, heartwarming, and ultimately upbeat indie comedy.

Do you hear me, cigar-smoking movie guy? YOU'RE UNDER NEW DIRECTION.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

I heart earplugs

Photo credit. I love this guy. What is happening with his metallic hair?

Something big has happened in my world. I haven't told you about it yet because it is still sort of tender and new.

Have you ever learned something major about yourself that was simultaneously surprising and totally obvious? And then spent two weeks re-evaluating your entire personal history in light of this new information?

Me too.

Hi, my name is Katherine. I am a successful, high-functioning adult with sensory processing disorder, clinical anxiety and a "sub-threshold" mood disorder. If we haven't met yet, start here.

I went to see a new psychiatrist two weeks ago, at the recommendation of a local therapist friend. I told her my story, presenting it in a slightly different light than in the past, partly thanks to the intervention of another good friend. This doctor listened and asked a ton of questions. And then she NAMED my problems and it made SO MUCH SENSE.

The most mind-blowing-yet-obvious piece is the sensory processing disorder. It explains so many things, from my childhood to my preferences and choices as an adult.
"Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurologically-based condition that exists when the nervous system fails to properly receive and organize messages from the senses...[causing] confusion, distress, and discomfort. It is a physicalneurological condition that can have psychological ramifications in adulthood." --Rachel Schneider
SPD is a relatively new, somewhat controversial diagnosis that is most often applied to children, though there are many adults now realizing they have gone undiagnosed their entire lives.

As neuroscientist Dr. Jean Ayres puts it: “When the flow of sensations is disorganized, life can be like a rush hour traffic jam.” Does this sound fun? Because it isn't.

SPD is a spectrum, like everything else, and the symptoms and severity range widely. In my case the most obvious symptom is hyper-sensitivity to noise. Loud noises, and sometimes even background noises, make me jumpy, irritable and anxious. My brain hears normal sounds and misinterprets them as ALARM BELLS. So my body has been in high alert for much of my life, pumping stress hormones around and generally wreaking physical havoc.

How crazy is it, then, that I left the woods of my hometown for college in New York City? Is it a surprise that I never acclimated to the noise, smells and lights of this place? As much as I loved the excitement of the city and my friends there, it was hard for me to go back, every time. On graduation day I moved to Maine and never looked back.

Without knowing it, my hypersensitivity and need for certain kinds of stimulation guided me to my favorite pastimes. My three lifelong hobbies--swimming, singing and dancing--are apparently some of the best activities for helping to integrate sensory information. Scuba diving, my very favorite, provides additional sensory benefit due to the soothing pressure of deep water.

I will never get rid of sensory processing disorder. But I can learn to dampen my reactions. On top of psychiatric treatment and ongoing talk therapy I will shortly be starting occupational therapy with a local specialist. It would have been awesome to understand this sooner, but I am very relieved to understand it now.

You may see me doing strange things like taking random "sensory breaks" or wearing sunglasses inside or earplugs in public settings. Instead of looking at me sideways, it would be awesome if you would give me a "high-five." Because this is what progress looks like for me. And I am determined to show up and enjoy my life to the absolute fullest.

Monday, May 26, 2014

This is me, too

Here's me swinging on a vine in the jungle of Ecuador. Like my goofy excited face?

Finding this picture the other day was a little shocking. Because even though a lot has happened since this picture (2006), this is me, too. Would the "me" in this picture recognize the "me" sitting here tonight? How wrong would my predictions for the future "me" have been?

When we are awkward and oily in middle school it feels like we will be awkward and oily forever. When our kids are newborns it seems like we will never sleep again (**spoiler alert** this is true, at least for a few years). This spring, in the midst of a mental health crisis/awakening, it is easy to believe that faulty brain chemistry will hinder me for the rest of my life.

You've probably heard that the only constant in life is change. I am not a fan of this statement, though I occasionally repeat it in conversation to sound enlightened. To shelter us from this destabilizing truth, our brains simply pretend as if our future self will be just like our current one. This provides the comfy illusion that we know something (anything!) about our future. Here's how psychologists talk about this:
"Research has shown that we can have considerable difficulty predicting our future requirements because our current emotional states override them. This is called the projection bias and it occurs despite the fact that we have plenty of experience of the problem and its undesirable consequences."  --Jeremy Dean,
Recently I've been feeling not so great, and am trying hard to get better. (Some exciting progress over the last week, more on that later). My recent reality has been mostly about trying to calm down and show up for my life as fully as possible. Thanks to the projection bias, it often feels like my current, rather challenging, predicament spells out my future.

But look at me in this picture! I was--I am--also a person who goes into the jungle and swings on vines! On this trip I was still obsessed with bugs and often irritable and frequently anxious, especially when we got stuck in an oil town for 24 hours with no running water. But I was also brave and joyful and fearless.

Maybe the old and the new me are not so different. It's just us in all our messy beautiful glory. I am still flawed and in pain, and I am still perfect and whole.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Adventures in Therapy

Awhile back I told you about my new therapist. I'm no stranger to therapy; in fact, she is my eighth! But this time it's something different. Her method involves identifying the set of internal characters that together make up the "self." Here's how our sessions typically go:
1) Talk briefly about the goal for today.
2) Close eyes and focus inward.
3) Wait for a character to appear.
4) Try to get that character to notice me. The actual me: the quiet, strong, grown-up self.
5) If that character is in distress (and they usually are), figure out what they need to feel better.
6) Repeat steps 3 through 5 until we run out of time.

This has been a profound and also hilarious process with an increasingly colorful cast of characters. There is the ambitious one, the planner, the artist. There is a joyful one filled with light.

And then there is RED HOTS. This guy is awesome. Since I can't draw, let's work with this muscle man cartoon. Red Hots looks kinda like this guy, with a rounder head. Also no boxing gloves and no fangs. He is a deep, angry red all over, like the color of Red Hots candy (hence the name). His job is to be really really mad. And that's fine, because anger is sometimes necessary and healthy. Red Hots indicates the level of his current anger by shrinking small or growing tall, like Alice in Wonderland.

When I first met him, Red Hots was very very mad at the ambitious character. He told me that the ambitious one has often taken over the whole system, pursuing approval and accolades with no heed to anyone else's needs.

"I hear you," I told him. "I'm at the wheel now and you don't have to worry about being hijacked anymore." Red Hots was a fan of this development. He shrank down in size to register his approval.

I also have a whole host of sensitive characters who are sad and hurt. Many of these have been exiled from my normal consciousness because they are too upset and too upsetting. These sensitive ones are guarded by various protector characters. The more distressed the character, the more protectors it needs. We have already met one of the protectors: the crossing guard. Here are some others: 

THE BLACK ROBOT. This character is literally a boxy robot, dusty black all over. His job is to interpret sensory information. When I met him his dial was on "high," as in "all sensory information should be perceived as a potential threat." Black Robot was protecting an invalid girl character, the most sensitive I've met so far. 

THE IT GUY. Yesterday I encountered the IT guy. At first he was curled up under his desk, despondent and so discouraged about "the data." This data is apparently about my mental health: moods, anxiety level and physical pain. He works on a boxy desktop computer, producing charts and graphs and reams of old school computer print-outs with perforated edges. No one else was tracking the data, he told me, so he volunteered. He had been lonely with no one to hear his reports. As we talked, the IT guy slowly gained energy. He went from lying under the desk, to sitting slouched on the floor, to sitting on an office chair, to standing and gesturing with his hands.

The IT guy looks kinda like this cartoon, with no smile and a paunchy belly almost bursting the buttons of his white shirt. But he was also wearing a dinosaur costume head like the one my son wore to school yesterday (see photo to right). My therapist said: "No wonder he is discouraged. He is all weighed down, with a lot on his mind." As represented by... a costume dinosaur head?!

"We are going downhill fast," the IT guy told me, pointing at a graph on the computer screen. It showed a downward trend during the last 24 hours due to anxiety. I told him I understood, and thank you for noticing. He was unaware that just two days before I was feeling much better, even hopeful, for a whole day! Without a nap and with a minimum of pain! He just nodded, as if to say "That's fine, you're the boss," and sat down to keep working on the data.

THE PRETENDER. After the IT guy was the Pretender. I didn't get much of a visual, but she showed me memories. Times when everything around me had seemed fake, and I felt I had no choice but to conform. How I pretended to be just like the group--whatever group I was in at the time--to avoid rejection and social anxiety. The Pretender worked hard while I was growing up, but also into adulthood, even into the present. My therapist says that the IT guy and the Pretender are both protecting yet another character, one who is still in hiding.

And then it was time to go. I opened my eyes and felt good for the first time that day.