View from Beyond a Cliff: A Trauma Expert’s Journey

In a popular TedTalk, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky describes a moment on a cliff in the Caribbean where — she later came to realize — she had nearly experienced a mental health crisis.

I found myself standing on top of a very tall cliff having what I would only come to recognize many years later as a near psychotic break … We head out as a family on this hike. We get halfway through our hike, we summit where we wanted to summit, and there we are standing on the top of these cliffs. Right? So, the family is gathered around, (on this) tiny Caribbean Island, standing on top of these cliffs looking out. The first thing I remember thinking was, this is so beautiful. The second thing I immediately thought was I wonder how many people have killed themselves by jumping off of these cliffs.’”

Lipsky shared more of her story with Solace; losing her mother at 13 and being drawn by a force field into a career that surrounded her with trauma every day in social work to her work now helping others navigate trauma.

Looking back, how did losing your mother at a young age shape your life and career?

After my mother died of cancer, my brother and I got a lot of support and praise for being high-functioning. It was well-intentioned, but felt conditional, that we “hold it together.”

People would tell us, “you are so amazing and composed.”

But, I was not OK, I watched my mom die of cancer for three years. She was everything to me.

It isn’t just my experience. Now, in America, someone dies and they are supposed to instantly open a foundation, found a 10K run and sell merchandise.

This message is devastating when you are young.

What would you tell your younger self now if you could?

Looking back, I would tell my younger self that there is no right way to grieve and that it is OK to decompensate in a safe space. It isn’t even the words exactly, but I would give myself the space.

How did you get to that place on the cliff that you describe in your TedTalk?

I later learned that there is, at times, something that can feel like a “force field” that draws people — like me — who have experienced trauma to recreate and try and reconcile it. It is called “trauma mastery.” The idea is that as humans, after facing a situation that was out of control, we unconsciously say to ourselves, “this time, I’m going to have a different outcome.”

You will find people who lost someone to cancer in oncology, and if folks had a tough time in middle school, working as school counselors, or people who experienced child abuse working as therapists.

Trauma can make you feel so isolated, these fields offer a place where you are less alone. But as a witness to trauma, we have to be mindful of caring for ourselves.

After that moment on the cliff that I shared in my TedTalk, I changed how I viewed myself and my work. Now I work every day to earn the right to work around trauma, rather than feeling entitled to do so.

How are you helping others navigate trauma?

Trauma is personal and subjective. What might be traumatic to you might be someone else’s Wednesday afternoon.

Stevie Wonder says “you have to handle your business,” and that’s what I advocate for in my practice.

Now in my work with everyone from those who serve in the military to librarians to police officers to activists to doctors to journalists, I talk about how the workplace has to be sustainable. That means, the employees have to be able to have the time and resources to realistically do their jobs. They cannot help communities affected by systematic oppression if they themselves are bringing home work on nights and weekends.

What advice do you give to the groups you work with about self-care?

We need to change the culture of martyrdom that says you should “suck it up” and “push through” if you are cool, tough enough and committed. So much of our work can be demoralizing, disheartening and dispiriting, we need to make the work sustainable to be able to help the people outside the organizations, agencies and systems I serve.

If you help others in your professional life, I urge you to have a plan for every single day where you can maintain your health for yourself, your loved ones and the people you serve.

I speak to these groups about the power of presence. It is important not to underestimate the profound power of being present for another human being. We are surrounded by things we can’t control, but when we bring that exquisite quality of presence to others, it can be transformative. Being present for another human being can mean everything.

Lipsky is the founder and director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute and author of the books: Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others and The Age of Overwhelm. At the time of the story below, she had been working at Seattle’s Harborview Hospital as a social worker. Learn more about Lipsky and the Trauma Stewardship Institute.

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