Ten years ago, I discovered a collection of poems titled ‘Holocaust’ by Charles Reznikoff’s. During this time, I was working as a consultant in London in the arena of gender-based violence. Reznikoff’s work resonated with me. I had grown up with stories of the war in my family. Also working with survivors of abuse, I had a deep awareness of the impact of trauma in the ‘ordinary’ settings of family and intimate relationships. ‘Holocaust’ is a unique collection of poems depicting the atrocities of war.
Reznikoff's collection draws directly from the official government transcripts of the Nuermberg Trials and the records of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. This technique of creating poems, literally by carving out the poem from the original text, is a technique known as Found Poetry. Found poems take existing texts or other source materials and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage.
Charles Reznikoff’s work is an exceptionally skilled piece of work, created solely from source text and pure to form. Reznikoff’s collection presents multiple narratives that may have otherwise remained locked in the court room and buried in history. The accumulative effect of his poetry is powerful and gives a stark insight into daily atrocities. At the time of discovering this collection, I attended a series of courses at the Tate Modern in London led by TS Elliot Prize winner, Pascale Petit. These courses were magical; one evening a week for 8 weeks we would have exclusive access to exhibitions in the Tate Modern gallery and workshop our poems.
Inspired by Reznikoff’s collection, my poems were clearly influenced by the trauma of abuse. Using art as a stimulation to write poetry, prodded my subconscious and the poems that emerged were strangely surprising, and quietly familiar at the same time. I began to notice that a recurring theme was the ‘ordinariness’ of abuse with glimpses of change and escape.
after I’m here but Nothing by Yayoi Kusama
She grows wild wings
under the dinner table
where fields of begonias flower.
Thoughts of escape
travelling from the television,
a confetti petal.
Edward De Bono who is credited as the inventor of lateral thinking claims that creativity is the ‘most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.’ As I worked on my poems, inspired by being in such a magical place, with such a generous teacher, it became an important part of my de-compressing and ‘processing’ vicarious trauma.
In addition to the healing properties of creativity, uncovering otherwise hidden ‘truths’ is a powerful learning tool. Our language and communication reflect our thoughts. The French philosopher Foucault believed that systems of thought and knowledge are governed by rules which operate beneath the consciousness. He named the process of revealing those hidden rules the ‘archaeology of knowledge’. Poetry has the power to take something familiar or ‘accepted’ and make it unfamiliar which confuses ‘the rules’ of our thought processes and creates an opportunity to think differently about the subject. Yevgeny Yevtushenko says, ‘poetry is like a bird; it ignores all frontiers.’ Where this happens, it can be a transformative experience; a ‘light bulb’ moment.
I use creativity consistently in my work. Where possible, I introduce art, music, poetry as tools for transformation. I have used these techniques with children, young people and adults, as a vehicle for self – expression, mindset shifts and mindfulness. I would not have called it mindfulness 10 – 20 years ago, it was fun, it was play. I noticed particularly with boys how their aggressive, competitive behaviour changed when they engaged in tasks that focussed on creating, rather than winning. The poet Pablo Neruda refers to poetry as ‘an act of peace’ and in my experience, creativity and creative expression not only bring the individual peace, as their gifts are shared, others also benefit. I could trace my own personal transformations through my poems as new realisations emerged.
after Tree of 12 Metres by Giuseppe Penone
I cast off innumerable skins, emerged
as an amber tree with spokes,
reminders of a gnarled self.
The cracks in the wood became oubliettes
where devils crept out,
descending to the earth from branches.
Now, with careful attention,
a finger or an eye may trace the circles.
This appeared as a guest blog for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. For more information about their work, click here to visit their website ncadv.org/about-us
*The following article appeared as a guest blog for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust in the UK.
At the Suzy lamplugh Trust, the impact of stress on our work supporting survivors of stalking is significant in ‘ordinary’ times. Advocacy services supporting those victimised by stalking and coercive control are typically already stretched to capacity. Overwhelm of services and staff is a daily occurrence and there can be little latitude to focus on self-care and building resilience.
When disasters and emergencies occur, like COVID-19, those stressors are amplified significantly, and create unforeseen, logistical challenges. The pandemic experience is an experience of collective vulnerability and in the words of Brene Brown, ‘we can be our worst selves when we’re afraid, or our very best, bravest selves’. More than ever teams need resilience strategies embedded into individual and organizational management.
Psychological resilience based in self-care is very different from forcing yourself to be constantly positive, particularly in difficult circumstances. Ignoring difficulties actually breaks down our resilience. Psychologist Susan David challenges societies unhealthy obsession with happiness in her critique, the Tyranny of Positivity;
'humans must develop the skills and capacity to deal with difficult times — not sweep it aside as a glitch in the smooth delivery of constant happiness. Sadness, heartbreak, and grief are not signs of weakness, and pretending these “ugly” emotions do not exist only hinders our authentic existence and how we experience life. Moreover, it lowers our resilience in dealing with future difficulties as well.'
However, in these ‘unprecedented times’ where is our reference point? How can we know that this will pass? How do we anchor ourselves through deep uncertainty and where is the balance between positivity and the acknowledgement of uncomfortable emotions? In this article, I offer you three key perspectives to assist you:
Strategies for Resilience
Firstly, it may be useful to acknowledge the courage of survivors who have lived with, or currently live with danger and uncertainty from their abusers and stalkers. The more dangerous and coercive the abuse, the harder and more dangerous it is for that individual to leave, particularly if they have caring responsibilities. Yet we ask that survivor, in the midst and often at the peak of the danger - a time of great threat and paralyzing fear, to take a leap of faith and trust that this will pass.
We ask survivors to trust an imperfect criminal justice system. We ask them to trust that they can create a fulfilling future despite being broken down by months and sometimes years of stalking. Perhaps during this time of lockdown and physical distancing, we are more connected to the complexity of traumatic experiences and the visceral impact this has on our ordinary abilities to function and trust. When our daily distractions and safety blankets are removed, we are left overhearing the loud chatter of our forgotten fears and darkest insecurities.
Secondly, we can challenge the notion that the impact of the recent chain of events is unprecedented. The current situation is unusual, but the level of fear and uncertainty that connects many of us now, is in itself not unprecedented when we think of the impact of war, naturel disasters, sexual violence, stalking and fatal domestic abuse. If we fill our day by focussing on the possible and future danger, we trigger our fight, flight and freeze responses. There is benefit in noticing where we focus our mind and adjusting that focus as needed.
On 12 March the WHO released a briefing paper – “Mental Health and Psychosocial Considerations During COVID-19 Outbreak. This document includes guidance to health professionals and their managers. Under the General Population item number 3, WHO advise that we minimize watching, reading or listening to news that causes us to feel anxious or distressed. They recommend the following;
Thirdly, notice what is going on in your ‘whole-body system’– your mind, body and emotions. In my coaching practice I share powerful tools and techniques that do this, such as mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises. All are simple, time efficient techniques that can be used anywhere and will quickly calm your physiology and fear responses. In addition, implementing simple things such as walking away from your computer and stretching will release stress and allow you feel more comfortable.
While working from home, it is important to take regular breaks and where you can, check in with colleagues or friends to reduce the feelings of isolation. For those essential workers who have continuously been at work, follow the health and safety guidance and seek support from peers and managers as needed. For managers, listen to your staff and know that ‘being human’ may be your greatest asset at this time.
* Cath Kane is an associate consultant to the Suzy lamplugh Trust providing specialist advice to the MASIP Project Management Team. MASIP is a pioneering research and partnership programme, managed by Suzy Lamplugh Trust and funded by the Home Office, bringing together psychological services, victim/survivor advocacy and criminal justice responses to address the harm and impact of stalking. For more information on the Suzy Lamplugh Trust visit their website www.suzylamplugh.org
The survivor’s narrative is often rendered invisible by the perpetration of violence, whether that violence is physical, psychological or material. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events is an essential part of the healing process. After natural disasters, healing can come from the connection with others who have shared the experience. As Judith Lewis Herman highlights, ‘the solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience.’
My grandparents and parents survived the second world war. They had vivid memories of the experience of war, which included the Nazi bombings in our home city in 1943. My parents were children at the time and years later, my mother and great aunt would recall that night and their fear as they heard the warning sirens. My mother’s apartment block was bombed. They managed to escape into the street and run for cover into the nearby air raid shelter. They were running for cover through broken glass from windows that had exploded into the streets. They were running for their lives and the sounds, smells and sights they saw that night stayed with them forever.
Often with abuse, survivors are isolated. Often, events that harm are minimised, adapted or denied completely. Acts of violence and domination have the power to erase the disaster and retell the story through the eyes of the perpetrator, giving the listener a partial truth. Sometimes, even the survivor believes the re-told story because of the ‘hold’ that the perpetrator has over their reality.
Even though I did not live through the war, I experienced it vicariously through my family experience, through the stories they told. As I got older, I realised that there was much more that they didn’t say, particularly my grandparents who tried to shield their grandchildren from the horrors of war. I noticed early in life, that the absence of words can be a more powerful indicator of trauma than the stories we retell. This understanding has followed me into my professional life and continues to fuel my professional curiosity.
A major challenge for professionals attempting to support survivors effectively, is that these partial truths may be scattered across multiple agencies, if these truths are known at all. During my work in London, I have trained professionals on risk assessment and domestic homicide prevention. Understanding risk through the eyes of the survivor is a vital piece of the narrative. Tragically, domestic homicide reviews are too little, too late for the victims and their families, but the principle of these reviews is to embed the learning into prevention work that benefits all survivors.
As professionals we may only see fragments of the story. This can make it very difficult to support that individual, family or community effectively. We may think we are doing the right thing by following agency protocols, or a social worker report BUT if our response is not informed by the survivor’s experience, then our intervention is compromised, infact it can be more dangerous. At times we may not know what to believe because there is conflicting information.
When I coach teams, I encourage them to always believe what the survivor and children are telling them, there is nothing lost from believing a person’s story. Sometimes what is recorded in case notes is NOT accurate information. Even if there are copious amounts of case notes, hearing a person’s story as they remember it is an act of humanity. This is a starting point for meaningful engagement. Meaningful engagement builds trust, particularly if you follow through on your commitments and the person believes that their feelings and experience is acknowledged. Trust enables disclosure. The more accurate information you have about a survivors situation, the better placed you are to assist them.
Published by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Click here to visit their website ncadv.org/about-us
There is growing media coverage of the increase in, and implications of, work-related stress. An article in the Telegraph in November 2018 announced, ‘for the first time, work-related stress, anxiety or depression accounts for over half of all working days lost due to ill health in Great Britain’. The newspaper article examined figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in their annual summary statistics report.
The figures released in the 2018 HSE report are staggering. There were 26.8 million work days lost to ill health in 2017-18. Of those, 15.4 million were lost due to stress, anxiety or depression. This is an increase of 2.9 million from the previous year and equates to 57.3% of total work days lost. According to the data released, most at risk are workers in the education industry with social workers as the next, most at risk.
In the UK Chancellors Autumn budget in 2018, the government announced new funding for a mental health service and 24-hour hotline, but there have been calls for employers to do more. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has claimed that work-related stress is a ‘growing epidemic’. They are urging managers to do much more to reduce the causes of stress which means ‘tackling issues like excessive workloads, bullying in the office [because] toxic workplaces are bad for staff and productivity’. To progress the agenda, the TUC encourages employers to have work-place conversations about these issues.
I can vouch for the positive power of initiating ordinary, demystifying conversations about stress because this is a common experience in work and life. National statistics in the UK indicate that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year and 1 in 6 adults experience a common mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression every week.
However, unless trained, coached or adept in supporting staff through these issues, many managers are not confident about initiating discussions or handling disclosures. On receiving a disclosure, even experienced managers at times may be left thinking ‘now what do I do?’. The good news is you don’t have to be a mental health professional to be able to have positive conversations about stress. In fact, not being a health professional may in fact give you an advantage. Why? Because you don’t need to medicalise what is essentially a common, shared experience across society: ‘being human’ will help you.
Here’s my ‘strategic 3’ for creating a culture to support ordinary conversations about stress and build resilience in yourself and your organisations;
1. Know what stress is - understand what stress feels like and looks like so you are aware when you are stressed. Self-awareness is a foundation of good management and inspirational leadership. Ask yourself how you can demonstrate good habits for the recognition and resolution of stress within your team or department. In other words, ‘walk the walk’. This knowledge and practice underpin culture change, particularly if you aim to engage staff to be part of the change.
2. Know what causes stress - understand the likely causes of stress in the work-place generally. Even better, understand the causes within your teams or department. For example, is there clarity about roles and responsibilities, is the workload manageable, are team dynamics healthy or toxic, are other departments performance outcomes in conflict with yours?
Our work environment has a significant impact on our sense of wellbeing. Check in with staff on how they feel about the ‘space’ and configuration of their work environment. For example, are there ‘time out’ spaces away from workstations that staff can use?
In teams where conversations about challenges are solution focussed, it may be straight forward to identify shared causes of stress. Alternatively, if team dynamics are problematic, you will need to think more creatively about how to gauge, understand and respond, particularly if bullying is an issue.
3. Identify and address the skills and knowledge gaps – in dialogue with staff and utilising mechanisms such as support and supervision, be curious about individual and team developmental needs. Where accessible, utilise in-house resources such as occupational health. Explore options for offering counselling, external supervision or coaching. Seek genuine feedback on what works well and what causes pressure. Invite ideas and solutions on what could be done better and why it’s important.
Consider if the organisational culture supports communication, interaction and collaboration or is there ‘silo’ working? All too often in safeguarding, fatal and serious events happen because communication and professional relationships are stilted or have broken down completely. When your work is preventative or protective, be vigilant for systems and communication blocks as these are the weakest parts of the safeguarding chain.
Cath Kane is a consultant and coach specialising in women’s empowerment and leadership evolution. She has extensive strategic and operational experience in the field of gender-based violence.
In 2015 the Guardian commissioned a survey looking into the impact of working in public services on staff. The survey found that 93% of respondents ‘feel stressed at work all, some, or a lot of the time; those working in jobs ranging from social work to police and probation, social housing to the NHS, civil service and charities’. The headline for the article read ‘stressed, angry and demonised: council staff in austerity Britain’ acknowledging that local government workers are feeling the emotional strain of maintaining services with diminishing resources. This raises the question; how can we build resilience in organisations that support staff to effectively meet the ever-increasing demands of delivering frontline services?
Those of us who work or have worked in local government and voluntary sector organisations, will have experienced the pressures to deliver on national government policies while offering appropriate, accessible services at local level that meet the needs of our communities and service users. Localisation has allowed local authorities to define their own priorities based on community need. However, this has created challenges when implementing national priorities such as changes in legislation to address coercive control and psychological violence. How can we ensure consistency in information, advocacy and support when there may be gaps in services at local level?
Austerity may have reduced budgets, but the social issues they address have not reduced. Most professionals working in the public sector and specialist third sector are overwhelmed by demand. That demand for services is often increased with successful public awareness campaigns, landmark legal changes and political re-prioritisation. Welcomed as many of these changes may be, for managers and staff responsible for delivering change, the task may seem impossible at times.
Having managed a diverse range of teams, projects and partnerships over the last thirty years, here are 3 things for senior managers to consider when supporting your teams.
Published in Coercive Control Chat Magazine