As some of you may know, I am currently on leave from a 20-year career in post-secondary administration. My work has been mostly in overseeing incredible staff who provide a wide range of services for students, e.g. MBA programs and services, ESL programming for university-bound international students, elite leadership programming for hand-selected banking up-and-coming international executives, and undergraduate students working on their first degree. I’ve won international awards and brought in a lot revenue for my employer.
Increasingly, however, I was responding to what felt like traumatic experiences as my colleagues overworked themselves to provide what I can only describe as above-and-beyond care, support, understanding, and (of course) education. Students aren’t great at learning unless they feel connected with the person they are supposed to learn from. They also run into situations (e.g. health, personal, or financial) that make it very difficult for them to meet the rigorous requirements of course deliverables or financial deadlines. My teams and I often wanted to support our students in ways that we felt they needed, but that we were not resourced to in any sustainable way.
The level of stress that FirstGen (first of their family to participate in post-secondary education), international (no support network, no understanding of local language or customs), or financially strapped (on financial aid that barely covers tuition, let alone living expenses) students face on a daily basis was a constant weight on many of the frontline and advising staff I worked with.
On the face of it, it may not seem like we were dealing with life and death decisions, but in reality, the emotional impact to our students were unbearably heavy. A student missing an exam could fail a course, which could mean $9,000 of tuition down the drain or even an additional cost of $20,000 to stay for a summer term to make up for it. Worse, a 0.5% deduction on a paper could mean the difference between getting into a major or not, which could translate into being disowned by parents. Again, this may sound exaggerated, but these are issues my colleagues faced: crying students, angry parents, upset professors, etc., and all because grades were representative of a high stakes competition that post-secondary students face as they observed a world where getting a good job was tough and the economy uncertain. We often had students on the brink of suicide and finding it difficult to access support that felt helpful to them.
Imagine my surprise when *I* had a full on mental breakdown. I tried to take care of it by asking for flexibility in my working week but was told that if I was unwell, I ought to take a sick leave to take care of my health. This ironically was probably a blessing in many ways, given that the global pandemic took over within a week of my going on leave, but at the time, it really felt counterintuitive and unsupportive to me. As in, I didn’t really want to have my career go into a screeching halt, I was just completely overwhelmed mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Like, I was checking off all 16!
What I wanted was some time to create headspace so that I could figure out how to manage my health while balancing my work and family obligations. But as life would have it, I ended up being leave at home with my kids who were supposedly doing online learning from exhausted teachers who had never had training for teaching kids online. Good times. Luckily, my kids had fantastic teachers, but no matter how great you are, trying to teach tweens online is one humongously challenging thing to do. So what was supposed to be time off to heal morphed into a hybrid homeschooling situation for which I was completely unprepared!
This past year and a half on leave have led me to a whole new journey in healing that I never knew existed. As I learned more about trauma and more specifically developmental and complex trauma, I found my way to Pete Walker’s CPTSD, which completely opened my eyes to what could have been happening in my nervous system and how I *could* manage my healing instead of being stuck in a ‘I think I’m forever broken’ mentality.
It led me to the International Association of Trauma Recovery Coaching and the Jai Institute for Parenting. These certificate courses have curated reading lists that are foundational in understanding trauma and the impact trauma has on our children. For me, this particular book about Trauma Stewardship adds a layer in my healing playbook pertaining to my work life. It also helped me think about trauma and trauma stewardship in a more structured way.
van Dernoot Lipsky posits that there are three levels of trauma stewardship: Personal Dynamics (our history, our relationships), Organizational Tendencies (culture, expectations, meaning of our contribution), and Societal Factors (values, systemic oppression).
The section on societal factors really resonated with me and how I felt about work and our students.
If we lived in a society where equity, respect, access, and justice were realized, and unearned privilege and inequality and oppression were transformed, the impact of trauma exposure in our lives would look dramatically different. Suffering would still occur. People would sustain injuries and contact illnesses and even hurt each other. The difference is that we would only have to confront that suffering at face value: an injury, an illness, a hurtful act. We would not have to wondering if disparities between rich and poor, white people and people of color, heterosexual people and gay/lesbian/bi/transgendered people, and so on contributed to the suffering. We would not have to wonder if we personally benefit from the disparity that underlies the suffering. We would not have to wonder if we are vulnerable to the same disparity. We would not have to decide whether we should act to change the disparity, or if we should blame the person suffering for the disparity, or if we should ignore the disparity altogether.
The book then goes on to provide a framework with which to build a recovery structure for yourself or the five directions for your own trauma stewardship: Creating Space for Integrity, Choosing Our Focus, Building Compassion and Community, Finding Balance, and a Daily Practice of Centering Ourselves.
A book review is supposed to be about the book and why the reviewer recommends it to you, the reader. But in this case, the book had such a profound impact on my outlook about trauma and trauma stewardship that I’ve spent about 75% of this post on me!
Next to read from Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is The Age of Overwhelm – The Trauma Stewardship Institute. Adding to my list of books for a Sandwich Parenting book club!