Mental Health

Embodiment: Life In This Body by Robyn Rapske

It’s been a fair amount of time since I added a blog post to this website. The reason for this is actually really great. I’ve been quite distracted with improvements to my health.

As I’ve written about before, for over a year, I’ve struggled through two health diagnoses that have made me super, insanely tired. I’m always ready for a nap after the few part-time hours I’m able to get through at work.

However, over a month ago, I was arriving home after work, mentally exhausted and ready to collapse on my couch, when something strange happened. Somehow my body spoke to me. Not audibly, obviously, but in a way that I knew it was saying to me: “I’ve got to run right now. Please, put on some running shoes and let me run.” I felt a rush of energy that had to be expressed in a run.

 A hike that many local Vancouverites would recognize, Quarry Rock, is now possible for me to enjoy again!

A hike that many local Vancouverites would recognize, Quarry Rock, is now possible for me to enjoy again!

Despite barely being able to do any exercise other than long walks for over a year, I let my heart rate soar as I pushed through sweat and throat-searing breathe while running through my neighbourhood.

It’s a good thing I listened, because the next day my Post-Concussion-Syndrome-head felt clearer than I could remember in a long time. Since that day, I’ve either run or (more recently) hiked at least twice a week.

IT FEELS FANTASTIC.

My soul lights up knowing that I’ve built up enough cardiovascular strength, that this week I graduated to trying two short hikes!

With a Saturday opening up with no plans, it felt like time for me to process out another blog post. With this recent exercise, the improved health of my body, and contemplating what I’ve learned while experiencing life so vividly in my weakened body, I thought it might appropriate to share about the topic of Embodiment, as I understand it and have been thinking about it. I’ll explain more about what that term means later.


I’ll start by saying that I used to think a lot about “Body Image”.

I had a terrible 'Body Image' after puberty hit and I began evaluating how my body measured up against standards I’d been blissfully unaware of as a child. I remembering scratching my fingernails along my stomach at 13, hating that it wasn’t flat like my skinnier friends. It was a really unpleasant feeling, hating my body, but I was stuck in it until my body started to lose fat.

Whenever I lost weight in future years, I would be given elated moments of really ‘great’ body image. If I slimmed down, fixed my hair well, or wore something I felt flattered me, I felt like I measured up to the standard of beauty, and counted it as having ‘good’ Body Image day.

I’ve experienced what I’d call a ‘Yo-Yo Body Image’. When I was matching societal standards of beauty, I felt happy, I felt proud of my body, and I felt satisfied with my life. When I didn’t feel I matched these standards of beauty, I felt less satisfied with my life, I felt my mood plumet for the rest of the day, and I wanted to hide under baggy clothing.

Then when I discovered things I was passionate about, like social work and justice for the marginalized, I found I could step out of the Yo-Yo for a brief time while I was distracted by the other things I cared deeply about. In this time I didn’t think about my body at all because I was so ‘other-focused’.

But it was never long-lived. I’d step right back into the Yo-Yo again when a photo of me surfaced that I didn’t like. Or likewise, I’d feel a rush of joy over my Body Image when I looked in a mirror and I felt like I looked fantastic.

Essentially, I had the options of judging my body as “Good” or “Bad”, or simply being “Disconnected”.

I’m a white, Christian woman from a middle class family in Canada. I have never suffered from something like anorexia, bulimia, or diagnosed body dysmorphia, so I know my particular experience of Body Image is unique to my life. But I’m sure we have all heard and talked a lot about “Body Image”. Body Positivity, Good Body Image, Bad Body Image issues--there’s so much conversation about it.

I thought this was the only conversation I could have about my body.

What I’m grateful to God for, is that this is not my only option. There is another conversation I can have. I’ve only recently heard it termed “Embodiment” on a Liturgists podcast of the same name (listen here).

What is Embodiment?

I don’t know that I can define it well, but for me, this is how it’s mattered to me as a term:

Embodiment is experiencing life through my body. Experiencing society through my body. Experiencing who I am through my body. Experiencing my everyday life through my body.

Instead of thinking about and judging my body, I can spend my energy in living life through my body.

It sounds a bit weird, and I don’t know how else to explain it, so I’ll try to ‘flesh’ it out with stories.

 Now that's a completely happy and elated little Robyn

Now that's a completely happy and elated little Robyn

When I was a kid, I lived an almost fully ‘embodied’ life. I didn’t judge my body, or think ‘about’ it, I didn’t even really ‘listen’ to my body; I simply lived out my life through my body. I wept when my body said that I should. I laughed hysterically when something was funny. I ran in circles when it felt a rush of energy. I sang when I wanted to (at the grocery store, out my window, at the dinner table). I followed around my big brother, copying whatever he did because I admired him. I screamed when something scared me. When my stomach hurt, or my head hurt, or my throat hurt, I stopped doing the things that would hurt it until it felt better. When I wanted comfort I’d find my mom to hug me.

I experienced my life fully through my body, and didn’t think much about it.

If this sounds weird, or you’ve been taught by religious leaders 'not to trust the flesh’--I understand, as I have also had these thoughts. However, I’ve also had other thoughts that say my body and my life are so intimately entwined that it makes no sense to sever the two.

I’ll expand on how it looks for me now, trying to live this kind of embodied life as an adult. After all, as adults, we learn that following all of our body’s instincts isn't always helpful, because we live in a very imperfect world that teaches our bodies some bad lessons.


I started thinking about this ‘embodied living’ when I suffered some consequences of disconnecting with my body.

A major consequence I experienced was heartburn. I suffered searing and debilitating bouts of it. Doctors couldn’t figure it out. My diet didn’t aggravate it that much. They wrote it off as a possible weak muscle between esophagus and stomach. After many years of heartburn, I started to realize it was more connected to my experiences of insecurity, than to what I ate.

When I was around people I felt might judge me, I would get very anxious, and my stomach pain would begin to build. Sometimes it was while keeping up with smart people in a conversation, and I would ignore the uncomfortable position I was in for hours. My body couldn’t digest properly or relax into comfortable positions because I was ignoring it. Sometimes it would be aggravated while being near boys I liked, or girls I feared the judgement of, and I would unconsciously suck in my gut to appear thinner, due to the unspoken belief that being thinner would make me more loveable. Doing this for hours also prevented proper stomach functions.

With confidence building and insecurities lessening over the years, as well as learning to take care of my physical needs moment-to-moment, I started to notice less problems with heartburn. I’m so grateful for friends and family who consistently helped me build up that confidence, and was astonished to see how much it affected my physical well being.

This experience helped me see that I live my experiences through my body--not just with a mental perception of my daily activities. My body experiences my insecurities just as much, if not more, than my mind.


During this time, I also struggled with growing bouts of insomnia.

You know that feeling, when you’re anxious about not being able to sleep, and you count the hours passing by, wondering if you’ll be able to do work the next day? And how it just makes you more anxious and less likely to sleep? That would happen to me so frequently that my brain was was being trained to get more anxious as bedtime loomed nearer.

Out of desperation, I succumbed to my psychologists suggestion to try ‘Mindfulness Meditation’, despite feeling a very haughty judgement of things such as Mindfulness practices.

I did an 8-week program she prescribed--a daily regime focused on learning how to reconnect with my experience of the world through my body. The book was titled "The Mindful Way Workbook".

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I had deep scepticism, especially when I read the instructions for the first exercise titled “Raisin Exercise”. I was supposed to spend 10 minutes slowly observing my body’s experience of eating a raisin. Touching it, looking at it, smelling it, letting it sit in my mouth, chewing it one chew at a time, swallowing it, then finally sitting with the flavour in my mouth.

What was phenomenal… is that when I was forced to stop and slowly experience something as silly as eating a raisin, I realized there was so much to my body’s experience of the world that I was unaware of. I noticed my body was really good at subconsciously operating multiple muscles in order to chew, and that there were muscles throughout my throat that operated without my knowledge to get food to my stomach. I didn’t realize raisins were so juicy in my mouth because normally I ate them in handfuls, like people eat popcorn during a movie--so mindlessly.

It made me wonder how much my body was experiencing and doing in life that I wasn’t noticing because I was so darned ‘cognitive’ about everything.

After 8 weeks straight practising a variety of exercises to train my brain, learning to notice my body’s experience more, I no longer struggled with debilitating anxiety over sleepless nights. I also noticed a lovely calm building stronger in my mind. I didn’t get as panicky over things. I enjoyed simple things more than ever before.

All from taking intentional time to understand my body’s experience of the world.


Developing a Thyroid disorder in April 2017, and then being dealt Post Concussion Syndrome January of this year, I’ve also been learning what it means to listen to a body that struggles with daily tasks.

In the past year and a half, this body of mine has been so loud about it’s needs, weaknesses, and struggles, I’ve been learning even more how my experience of the world is rooted within it.

I can’t push through daily fatigue anymore, as I used to. When my thyroid hormones were too low for a few months, I was near fainting if I ignored my tiredness. After Post-Concussion Syndrome settled in, if I pushed through full-time hours, ignoring fatigue, I’d have to cancel on work. Instead, I had to acknowledge that all my body could do was part-time.

As well for a while, if I didn’t go for an intentional walk outdoors at least twice a week, I would get so depressed and anxious that I would cry copiously and lose hope about my future. If I maintained even the smallest amount of exercise, I got just enough of a shot of endorphins and perspective to get through to the next day. My body’s experience is connected with my soul’s experience.

I was told dietary modifications would help both diagnoses. After adjusting my diet, I found that if I didn’t listen to my body’s experience of food, I paid for it in a larger ways than I ever had before. While my thyroid was problematic, if I had too much sugar or processed foods, my heart rate would pound higher, and my head would feel horrible. Currently, if I drink more than one alcoholic beverage in a span of 4 hours, I will be disoriented in a way that is more than ‘tipsy’, and it will make my next day absolute crap. Also, if I don’t eat 3 full meals rife with nutrients each day, my brain fades to mental fog much worse than I ever felt before this illness.

As much as I’d rather not have gone through these diagnoses, my old insomnia, or my heartburn, it’s the way it is. I experience the world through this body. It is intertwined with my life--it feels everything I do in life, it pays for whatever mistakes I make, it can teach me things about being well, it can help me understand the world around me better too.


I’m paying attention more in other ways as well:

I love that I cry when I pray for someone. Usually only a few tears escape, which I can hide away quickly before people see--but it is a way my body shows the beauty of prayer and the intensity of reaching out to the God of the universe.

When I go for walks, I love to pay attention to the wind on my skin, smelling the cooking of my neighbours, inhaling scents of the soft, wet ground after a rain, or noticing that sounds are muffled by snow. My body is the only way I can experience these things that bring my soul joy or fullness.

My body has also collected experience about the world and protects my being. It shows me that I am not yet safe in this world as a body with female qualities. Despite all of my efforts to protect my sexuality from society in modest running shorts and a super-contained sports bra--men still whistle, stare unabashedly, and comment. Because this still happens to my body, if I run past a man (or worse a group of men) my body tenses up completely, my arms close in towards my chest, and sometimes I feel a rush of protective adrenaline that causes me to act out. I will cross the street, or I will run faster or glare at the offender, and in some circumstances I’ve even snapped and flipped men my middle finger.

Thomas thought I should add a note here:
When I first expressed to him the intense protectiveness I have of my body around unknown men, he felt it wasn’t fair to men, or a necessary response.
Of course I know that there are many men out there who are not threatening to my body.
HOWEVER after hearing my many stories of 'everyday' sexual harassment, and the countless stories of my female friends and acquaintances being harassed, assaulted, and even in the past, raped, Thomas realized there are some pretty good reasons that I’m so protective and now understands why I am this way.
Even if it’s not all men, it’s enough men to warrant this daily protective response. 

 

The above is a protective response that is okay in my opinion, BUT I do acknowledge that sometimes have to retrain my body’s learned experience, too. It’s learned some bad lessons from being in this society. For example, when I’m sad, my body wants to feel better, so it will reach out to unhealthy options--overeating, zoning out to unhealthy amounts of TV, and (years ago) seeking affirmation for my physical attractiveness--and this all will take energy to unlearn.


The body experiences the same trauma and joys that our minds experience. If we ignore this, I think we’re in danger of being stunted in our growth to be fully alive--and stunted in our healing from the ways the world has injured us. I’ve been particularly bad at this, I think, so I have to consciously relearn it.

Perhaps body-disconnection is a Western kind of problem introduced by certain dominant cultures. I’ve heard other cultures don’t struggle to live an embodied life as much. Regardless of reason, I’m here now, relearning my body’s connection to who I am and the world I interact with, and it’s a much fuller experience than Yo-Yoing between condemnation, pride, and disconnection. I still get bouts of this frustrating Yo-Yo, but less so as the years go on.

My body is not bad. It’s just had bad influences. It’s actually very good. It’s a part of the whole thing that is Robyn Grace Rapske. Jesus came to earth within a human body. I think it’s worth reconnecting to our bodies which were, after all, created in God's image.


I have a tendency to forget what God teaches me, like these lessons above. But sometimes writing about it helps solidify the learning.

And I’m sure that, if I do forget this lesson, this body of mine, which God created so intimately, will remind me.


A shortened version of this article was published online Libero Magazine here


 This was a particularly embodied moment. I still remember the chill of the morning, the awe for this incredible sight, the joy of feeling on top of the world. Maui's mountain was full of other people, but I barely noticed them while this was before my eyes and the sun began to wash over my face.

This was a particularly embodied moment. I still remember the chill of the morning, the awe for this incredible sight, the joy of feeling on top of the world. Maui's mountain was full of other people, but I barely noticed them while this was before my eyes and the sun began to wash over my face.

Trauma, Peace, Persistence, Grace, Integrity by Robyn Rapske

 Hillary McBride, Tenth Avenue Church, Vancouver, BC, June 25, 2018

Hillary McBride, Tenth Avenue Church, Vancouver, BC, June 25, 2018

This weekend I attended an event titled Spiritual Trauma, led by therapist, researcher, speaker and writer, Hillary McBride. Hillary is at the forefront of studying trauma, amongst other things, and I’ve heard her speak on the Liturgists podcast regarding Spiritual Trauma before. This blog post addresses mostly how Trauma impacts the work I do, but if you’d like more extensive information on Spiritual Trauma specifically, I’d recommend the podcast episode, if you can’t make it to one of her talks.

Talking about trauma can bring up difficult emotions for those who have experienced it, so if this post is making your body freak out, then I’d say not to bother reading it. I really don’t want to invoke a panic attack. Try these calming techniques if you're needing a moment of peace.


Due to working with women and families on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), I encounter a lot of people with some pretty intense responses to their past and current traumatic experiences. As a general outreach worker here, my job is to offer support during various crises that women and families go through. This means I step directly into moments where they might be coping with real-time trauma, being reminded of a traumatic time in their lives, or trying to manage a new crises when they’ve already got Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder going on.

 My coworkers walking down a back a DTES alley on International Women's Day 2016

My coworkers walking down a back a DTES alley on International Women's Day 2016

Because of this, despite having a basis of education in Social Work, I continue to find ways to expand on my understanding of it--hence attending this weekend seminar.

What is "trauma"? Well, that’s a huge topic on its own. I’m not an expert in the research and study of that topic. So instead, I will throw down a few points from my recent experience hearing Hillary teach on it.

Trauma, she pointed out, means “wound” in Greek. In our understanding of trauma, that “wound” can refer to something harming the body (eg. concussion), it can refer to something harming the mind (eg. emotional, verbal, financial abuse etc), or to the mingling of those two (eg. emotionally and physically abusive relationship leading to a concussion).

The brain is a leading factor in our response to trauma, and it’s a confusing but amazing thing.

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One of its many attributes is that it has an intense survival instinct, with a variety of tools to support that instinct.

When something within the body is harmed (from a broken bone, to abusive language tearing at your concept of self), one of those tools jumps into gear without our conscious effort.

This, as Hillary taught us, is a form of intense “Sensory Memory”. When a traumatic event happens, the brain’s sensory system will memorize what exactly is happening in that moment. In the future, if anything similar begins to happen, the brain has remembered that it’s time to activate fight/flight/freeze modes without consulting your conscious decision-making skills.

For instance, if you’re in a cycling accident with a car that ran a red light, next time you’re cycling and a car is coming up to another red light, regardless of whether it is properly stopping, your brain may send out signals to tense up and prepare to react quickly just in case it doesn’t. It wants to keep you alive and well, and regardless of your opinion on the matter, it will probably start an adrenaline rush in case it’s needed to keep you safe.

This is a great survival instinct, and it’s probably why we survive longer than age 6.

This is an unconscious action, and not something you can easily stop from happening. It is fantastic in this circumstance, as cycling can be dangerous if you’re not alert to dangers that are always quite real.

However, what if you were verbally abused by someone over time, and your brain imprints a survival instinct to tense up any time you’re around a person who resembles the one who verbally abused you? You can end up tense, anxious, and frightened whenever someone reminds you of that person, and it can be frustrating because those people may not actually be dangerous.

Just as the brain creates this imprint without consulting your conscious brain, likewise it won’t easily be changed by your conscious choices. Only with some intentional therapies, certain ongoing practices, and lots of time can we change our unconscious survival reactions.

It’s my experience that these are part of what we sometimes call “Triggers”. Being ‘triggered’ by an enclosed space, by the presence of a white male in power at a church, by hearing loud noises close by, by human touch, it’s all part of those learned survival tactics of the brain that may be frustrating, but they’re trying to keep you alive, and it’s hard to change them.


Pausing a moment for what may seem like an irrelevant story but I swear, it’s not:

Recently my supervisor asked our team to read the books of the bible Ezra and Nehemiah. She is also a Reverend so she likes to refocus on the Bible when we're doing our work, which is nice.

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I believe this is the relevant summary of what I got from those books (feel free to correct any historical inaccuracies):

In Ezra, God’s temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem, but there are immense barriers to them completing it. People in power nearby created systemic pressures because they didn’t like how the Judeans’ God inspired people to be less subordinate to the kings. They stalled it and made everything harder in this pursuit given by God. Eventually, however, through persistence, the Judean people build the temple back up.

In Nehemiah, the Judeans begin to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and this time they have the power of a wealthy king on their side giving them construction materials. However, they are still being discouraged from this task by others. The enemies of Judah plan violent surprise attacks. The people rebuilding the walls had to hold a sword in their hands to fight, as well as continue their efforts to build.

Our supervisor asked us to think about what we are 'building up' in our lives, and what our 'swords' are, which we use to fight off those things trying to prevent us from building.


I’ve decided that what I’m trying to “Build” is Peace.

Peace in someone’s painful, chaotic moments
Peace between myself and others
Peace in everything and anything I have any influence over

I think of Peace as the opposite of trauma. If we have experienced trauma, aren't we always trying to find our way back to Peace?

As for what I have to “Battle” back at, I think that involves anything that threatens Peace.

In order to pursue Peace, and at the same time battle back against what discourages Peace, I use these three “swords”:

Persistence, Grace, Integrity

Persistence

It takes time, energy, supports, and commitment in order to heal from trauma. Studies in “Neuroplasticity” (the brain's ability to heal itself) show that it is possible to heal from trauma, but it can take a long time, and it involves dedicated supportive systems and significant helpful contributions to that healing. Hillary pointed out how, if we say the phrase ”Just get over it!” that we don’t understand how the brain works. It’s a long process and it has less to do with conscious decisions of ‘being over it’ and more to do with ongoing support, practice, and time to rewire the brain.

In my work--this means that I can show love, support, and care for someone over and over for the next 5 years, and might only see gradual changes, but I shouldn’t get discouraged, because it’s normal to take a long time to build back peace. The building of the temple in Jerusalem was interrupted for 15 years, and they must have been so tempted to be discouraged and give up--but they didn’t. So I shouldn’t.

Intergenerational Trauma is also a real thing which extends the time it takes to heal on a larger scale.

Intergenerational Trauma can be a result of environmental re-traumatizing--if the environment doesn’t change much, obviously the traumas just keep going. For example: Residential Schools happened in Canada beginning in the 1870’s, and then governments altered their policies, but continued the trend of separating kids from their families and cultures via the 60’s Scoop. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, massive amounts of Indigenous children were moved from their families into foster care or adoption. As of 2016, 52% of kids in the foster care system in Canada were Indigenous, but across Canada, Indigenous children only represented 7.7% of the population. There’s not much chance to get out of the trauma of family separation, if it keeps continuing.

Scientifically they’re also discovering that, even if the environment changes, the brain and body can pass along genetic markers helping their offspring avoid certain traumatic experiences.

There is an experiment ongoing, which Hillary described, (if you’re an animal rights activist I’m sorry, you’ll hate this experiment), where mice are being given the scent of cherry blossoms right before receiving an electric shock in the foot. These mice developed a fear of the scent of cherry blossoms. When they inseminated female mice with the sperm of these fearful mice and baby mice were born--despite the mother and baby never being exposed to electric shocks or to the 'father' mouse, the baby hated the scent of cherry blossom scents! They’re still continuing the study--they’ve already confirmed that the genetic marker that creates a fear of cherry blossoms has been passed at least 2 generations.

This study is new, so we’ll learn much more about the reasons for this as science progresses, but it is beginning to create a scientific defence for what so many people have already known--that the learned responses to traumatic events can be passed along generations.

So for example, integrating this information into my own life; I work with a lot of Residential School survivors, 60’s Scoop Survivors, and the children and grandchildren of these survivors. Indigenous people and Settler people in Canada will have to keep working for many generations before things will be fully peaceful. It will take a long time for people to “get over” the fear of white people separating their families, and the distrust of government and churches.

This leads to my next important weapon:

Grace.

Just as God had Grace and sent Jesus to redeem us, save us, and make us whole, despite our inability to be ‘deserving’ of these gifts--I see Grace as an important part of loving, supporting, understanding, and being kind to people who may be acting out their responses to trauma in unhelpful ways in relationship with me.

If “Sensory Memories” can be created by trauma, and those memories can become “triggers” for people, this can mean that someone may have a horrible reaction to me without realizing that's why they are upset. It could be because of how I look, the way I speak, where I work, the religion I hold to, the way I pray, the power I am unaware I have--simply because one or some of these things resemble someone who has traumatized them or their family. The past trauma may not be my fault, but their reaction to who I am is overwhelming for them, and it is their brain’s learned response to protect themselves from someone like me.

Their biology is protecting them without them even realizing it.

Due to the nature of the community that I work within, I have been yelled at, screamed at, sworn at, I have been called a F***ing C***, I have been threatened, I have been called racist, I have been told I’m a bad Christian, I have had women throw very clever guilt-trips my way.

I don’t like being treated this way, but when I understand trauma, I am less concerned with feeling offended and indignant, and more concerned with what led them to need this survival tactic.

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I still put in boundaries, such as saying “I believe your situation, and I want to hear more, but I’m feeling unsafe, so go take a break and cool off”. Or it can look like a physical barrier, when a man is unable to handle his emotions and starts smashing his fist against our door so we keep it closed.

It’s less about me, and more about their past, so I don’t take it as personally anymore. I have grace for their situation. I want to see them heal, rather than scold and judge them for their behaviours which are uncomfortable for me.

Integrity

Integrity can be meant in many ways, but I understand that integrity means that one's words match one's actions.

If I know how trauma is a huge part of everyone’s lived experiences, and I say I care about fostering Peace for others, then it only makes sense that I take action to create that Peace.

One example of how I’m trying to match my beliefs to my actions, is through my use of words.

I try not to use words that others identify as ‘triggers’ when I know what they are. Not only for individual traumas, but for collective traumas.

After understanding our body’s response to trauma, I don’t see avoiding “taboo” words as being “Politically Correct”, I see it as understanding the instinctive reaction that someone’s brain is going through, and doing my best to help avoid triggering it. Hillary didn’t relate her teaching on trauma to this concept, but I think it can be applied.

Ijeoma Oluo says in her book "So You Want To Talk About Race?":

“The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt”.

I would say that this history of trauma associated with a word will probably be felt until the environment changes and the generational trauma is given a chance to heal.

Indigenous people still feel racism, so the word “Indian” matters. It was used in ideologies such as “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” to justify cultural genocide (Richard Pratt, as cited in Cheryl Bear-Barnetson’s book). It was used in racial slurs and still is. So I won’t use it outside of explaining why it’s inappropriate. I don’t want to trigger the trauma that is associated with that word.

Maybe Indigenous people themselves will use that word, but I’m part of the group of people that wielded it in terrible ways, so my use of it can be very triggering.

If I say I care about not triggering the historical and ongoing trauma in people, this is one example of how my behaviour matters in order to create that.


I know it sounds like a lot of work, and sometimes it can be.

But honestly, it’s quite helpful.

Not only can I personally cope a lot better with the trauma I see in the world if I find something to do about it, but it also really impacts people around me for the better.

I have heard and seen miraculous things when women and families are given the safety of a place that makes efforts not to re-traumatize them. They may not be able to express it all the time, but I see it in their trust of me, in how they know that we will always be there for them.

Change flourishes in those places. I’ve seen women grow so much stronger than they thought they could, because they were given opportunities to be safe, and to rewire their brains slowly towards more Peace. They did hard work of healing, but the context is a huge help.

People sometimes talk about my job like I’m willingly doing the most painful work in the world.

But actually, this job gives me more hope than I thought I could have in a world full of trauma and pain. Women have a much better chance to heal in a place full of safety, peace, love, and non-judgemental care, so if we can help create more of that, there is hope.

Peace

Perseverance

Grace

Integrity

Calling It Bravery by Robyn Rapske

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Recently Thomas and I travelled for over two weeks. We celebrated his Masters program graduation in Philadelphia, we visited some friends in Scotland, and then we finished off with a few nights in London. It was a whirlwind, and I loved it. Feeling the pride of Thomas’s accomplishments, seeing my friends’ new baby in Scotland, meeting up in London with a friend for a show--it was all so wonderful.

However, as I posted pictures of our escapades on my social media pages, and received exclamations from friends over what grand adventures we seemed to be having, I thought about the stuff that didn’t make it on Instagram. I posted about castles, hikes, food, landmarks and monuments. I had a fantastic time commentating on the wonderful sights we were seeing.

But there was other stuff that I dealt with while travelling. Stuff I didn’t think people wanted to see.

I have sincere, uncomfortable, frustrating fears around travelling. And I travelled anyways. And I was proud of myself for it. I call it ‘bravery’. But that felt weird to post on Instagram, so I didn’t. However, why not? I'll do it now!

People who know me well, will know I have lot of fears, as I try to be vocal about what gets me anxious. Speaking about these fears can help me name them and find humour in them. The list of things that make me afraid is large, and has varying degrees of intensity from day to day. I think the only person in the world who might know all of them is Thomas, and even he forgets about some.

One of these things is heights. Another is the related sensation of falling from a great height. You’ll never find me bungee jumping or doing any free-fall amusement park rides. It makes my stomach churn.

Unfortunately, both of these fears tie in closely to flying.

Sitting 37,000 feet in the air, relying on the skills of flawed humans to put together a powerful engine and a sturdy metal structure to ensure that I don’t die by falling is terrifying to me.

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In 2010, my fear of flying began to show up when I made the long trek to Zambia and South Africa.

In 2016, when I went to Calgary for Christmas with my brother’s family, leading up to the trip and during the trip I had a constant, nagging anxiety at the knowledge that I’d have to fly again soon. It was very unpleasant.

By 2017 I knew I’d struggled through too many flights with gripping anxiety, so I decided I would finally accept the help of drugs. Flying to Philadelphia, and then home from New York, I gave my body the kindness of Ativan.

So a month ago, knowing that I’d be boarding six different planes for varying flight lengths, I had the Ativan ready. But as I kept checking in with my body, I was surprised to notice that the tell-tale anxieties weren’t starting. As we drove to the airport, sat in security checks, and found our boarding gate, nothing escalated. I wasn’t sure why this was happening, I found it quite interesting.

It would have been absolutely fine and kind to my body to pop the Ativan and fly, in anticipation that I might get anxious later on.

But I wanted to see what my body would do. I thought I’d try out it’s limits. So I breathed through the parts of flying I hate the most (take off and landing *shiver*), and lo! I made it through five of the six flights on our trip without the assistance of Ativan.

Each flight I waited to see what my body would do. I breathed through anxious moments and waited to see if they’d go away. Thomas complimented me each time I didn't pop my Ativan. It was wonderful to feel like I was overcoming the thing that makes me afraid.

That sixth trip, however, was a 9.5 hour flight home from London, in which the stresses prior to boarding were more than usual, and I was not feeling at ease.

I got through the takeoff, and the anxiety didn’t calm down. The sweaty palms, the racing thoughts, and the desire to cry was not going away. I decided that the line was too far. The anxiety was too much. I took my Ativan.

And that, by the way, is fine. I’m not going to hold on to any stigma that taking Ativan was weak. I personally found my bravery in seeing if I could try to do the thing that scares me without the help of a drug, but at some point, I think it becomes unkind to my body to push through unnecessary pain. So I was brave five times, and one time I was kind to myself. At no point do I consider my experience ‘weakness’.

There were many other times that anxiety accompanied my experience throughout the trip, and I had to decide what was a limit to push through and what was not worth it.

Would I do the hike that hugged cliffs, wind pushing at my body, the sea and rocks below? I did. I needed Thomas to hold my hand at parts, but I did it. I had my reasons for trying.

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Should I climb the tower to overlook Edinburgh, protected only by a small railing? My knees shook terribly, but I did it for the view, and after some photos promptly scurried down the spiral steps and drank water at the bottom while my heart rate cooled off.

I also had to face the question of whether or not I could even travel in my current condition. I’ve had chronic fatigue and brain fog since November last year from a concussion, and I had no way of knowing what my limits would be on this trip. I had a LOT of anxiety about worst case scenarios. And in part, they were slightly merited. My short time in Edinburgh was spent wondering how I’d get through each next hour, because my brain felt like it wanted to quit. And I did have to quit once we arrived in London, I missed out on the British Museum because of it. The majority of a day in London was spent doing very little, feeling very poorly, despite having only 2 full days to explore the city. But again, despite all of these fears and possible outcomes, I wanted to travel, it was worth it to me, so I tried being brave. And I'm so glad I travelled.

Each of us, I feel, have our own things to be brave about. These fears of mine seem like little battles in the very great troubles of the world. But they are my battles. And unfortunately they haunt my life in a way that only I will ever really understand. There are a lot more of them, which I won’t get into now, and I’m sure we all have our own sampling of them. Maybe for you it’s eating alone in the cafeteria, writing exams, talking to that intimidating coworker, attending an event you only know one person at, etc.

I know how silly my fears can sound--oh ‘bravery’ in such privileged circumstances. ‘Bravery’ in such glamour as being able to travel. I understand. To a degree.

It is still my reality, and the biological responses of what scares me are real. Therefore my bravery to face these issues is also very real.

So when someone comes to me and describes that they’ve done this seemingly mundane life activity that actually terrifies them completely, I am so excited for them! Although we have different fears, I know that feeling. I acknowledge that, for them, this was a horribly terrifying experience, and I’m very proud of their bravery to do what they did.

At the same time, if they were paralyzed by that fear and did not feel they could face it that day, I also get that! I understand. And I’ll let them know that just because one day they didn’t face that fear, doesn’t mean that they never will.

It’s up to each of us to face our fears. We know ourselves better than anyone else, and if we push ourselves, it’s because whatever we’re thinking of pushing through is worth it to us. And if our ‘pushing through’ looks different than others’, that’s okay too.

My bravery feels like bravery because I call it that. Maybe that's just me. I try not to call it ‘just getting through life’, or say ‘it’s pathetic that I deal with this fear’, because naming it ‘bravery’ is kinder to myself. Some loved ones call it bravery too. Thomas holds my hand and looks me in the eye and says he’s proud of me when I fly. When I hiked next to that terrifying cliff, he told me he was proud of me. My mom always said she was proud of me for doing things that she knew were scary for me. My closest friends never shame me for my fears, but smile and say they’re glad I did the thing that I wanted to do despite the fears.

I’m trying to take heart in my own bravery, unique to the things that are hard for me. I would love to see you do the same, and I will try to be a good support to you, if I meet you when you’re facing a fear.


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In the theme of this being Mental Health Awareness Month, please consider your own mental health and the mental health of others around you. 

If you'd like to donate to an organization that I really like, which addresses mental health, try out Libero Magazine here:  

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