What is so radical and so powerful about Keita is that, in an age of hyper-specialization where every malady must be micro-coded for the insurance companies and superficial resolution, she is conscientiously doing the opposite—slowing down and widening the concept of diagnosis to look at all aspects of the mind-body-spirit connection, as well as the socio-politico-economic-environmental contexts that are impacting her clients.
KW: Yes, and you’re right the journey of how I have come to build “Thrive” is a personal journey which is also reflected in how I approach my art and my writing. The reasons I shifted from a traditional therapy practice to a practice that involves healing includes a very personal journey of unpacking and healing my own soul wounds.
The idea of focusing on women and girls started in the late 80s, after I suddenly found myself violently divorced after just 3 years of marriage. I was living in the bohemian artist community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. Looking back I now realized I had severed these ties, because I had bought into the belief I had to grow up- “Adulting” is the term my second son (now a Man) uses to describe putting his own art on the back burner to “be a responsible productive adult.” I cringe every time I hear him use this word. It’s a word I still struggle with to justify why I do not embrace my own art.
I want to fast forward for a moment. In my field of somatic trauma phycology, we identify 4 responses to threat, AKA “adverse and/or traumatic experiences.” Most only know about “Fight or Flight.” There is also Freeze and Fawn. Today I will focus on Fawn because I view Fawn as an opposite response to Fight with gender specific implications. For example, in traditional forms of psychotherapy Fawn responses are often people who are misdiagnosed as codependent or victim. Characteristics include Appease / Submit / Resignation /Befriend. Fawn people adjectives include pleasing others, scared to say what they really think/feel, talking about others instead of self, are Angels of Mercy, overcaring, suckers, easily exploited by others, hugely concerned with what others think of them, a yes person. A collage of mine describes Fawn this way: It [Fawn] has also been referred to as the Stockholm syndrome, and historically more females respond in this way than males, who tend to have the physicality to fight or flee more easily. It takes self-blame and shame out of the equation, for example, when the victim is befriending and going along with the abuser/ perpetrator and not understanding later why they acquiesced in the situation and didn’t respond with fighting or fleeing.
So how did you get from "super mom/abused woman" to the amazing healer that you are today?
I arrived in Maine in 1995 with a five-year-old, broke, pregnant with my second child, homeless- fleeing another abusive relationship. I decided to try college again for the third time. I just had to get it right. There were two children depending on me. And I despised the shame of public housing and welfare. I had an opportunity to go to school under the Parents as Scholars Program (PAS). [PAS was a Maine initiative in response to the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act (under the Clinton Administration) championed by a Republican Olympia Snowe (go figure!) to create educational opportunities for TANF (welfare) eligible recipients.] Even with transferable credits, it took me six semesters—not including summer school—years to finish. I was excited about my BSW—yes! No more welfare! However, my first professional social work job was a child protection agent. (Yep—we even had badges) This lasted only eighteen months before I realized I could not stomach the work. Colleagues who managed to survive for decades did so using anti-depressants or drinking, or they suffered from a superiority complex. I knew I wasn’t actually helping “these” mothers or their broken families (who also came from broken families). Instead, what I did see in them were bits and pieces of me. So decided I needed to go back to school to get a better degree.
This led me to rethink my LCSW. However, 3+ years had passed since graduation, and trying to find a clinical track to be supervised proved to be more difficult than I imagined. I was bummed but determined. I had to work my way back into the field starting with BSW entry positions. Finally, I landed a grant position with Community Counseling Center who agreed to supervise my LCSW. This was the same time I heard about the work of Dr. Gabor Maté When The Body Says No and Peter Lavine’s Walking the Tiger: Healing Trauma and brought these two books into my interview stating how I intended to explore these concepts as a therapist in training. My supervisor at the time chuckled, you may not have chosen to work with trauma, but trauma has definitely called you! Little did we both know at the time, she would be spot on. About six months later I found myself registered in the first session SEP training session.
CG: When you were talking about your work, you named Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot and her influence on your thinking. Who is she and what was it about her work that inspired you?
KW: Oh yes, one of the requirements of my master’s program was to create a research project. Knowing me, I couldn’t just do a simple quantitative study—no! LOL— I had to explore things, probe and search for deeper understandings. Besides I hated statistics and SPS! I needed something tangible, relatable and alive. When I heard we could conduct a qualitative study, this peeked my interest. My core instructor however was mired in the postpositivist approach to research and told me something to this effect, “qualitative research is merely a quasi- form of research conducted in the field that is not reliable due to the fact that the environment containments the findings unless its conducted in a controlled environment…” I then proceeded to the department dean who tried to reframe what “He meant”. I paused and then announced I would consider a quantitative study if I could explore the implications of psychoimmunology as a lens for clinical intervention in social work. She stood speechless for a second, rolled her eyes and proceeded to tell me that it would be too hard for me, and besides I would have to be a medical student to do that type of analyses. I pouted. I felt like the cat who just lost its prey (huh, looking back on this I can now see how this would have begun a preliminary exploration into what we now call ACEs—“Adverse Childhood Experiences.” No longer feeling enthusiastic about research, I dropped the course until the following semester.
Little did I know there were new instructors recently hired who heard about my research ideas and wanted to support my qualitative endeavors. This is when I was introduced to feminist and womanist ideologies and participatory action research and deconstructing methodologies, which lead me to a qualitative style of research called Portraiture by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot. Her method is a social science inquiry that is able to blend art, environment and science, “capturing the complexity, dynamics, and subtlety of human experience and organizational life.” Of course, that made sense to me—I am an artist, right? Needless to say, I created an elaborate explorative thesis that took more than two semesters to complete, documenting the results of a multicultural program called Dialogues in Diversity at the University of Southern Maine by attempting to combine all approaches. Oy vey!
End of Part 1
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