On day three of the 2013 Alternatives conference, I was ecstatic to attend the Empowering Women’s Voices for Greater Intimacy and Wellness workshop. PEERS’ very own Lisa Smusz, Jenee Darden, and Kelechi Ubozoh facilitated it. I do not know about you, but if the description for a workshop expresses that it is for mature audiences ages 18 and up, I know it’s going to be something good! What better way to walk into a workshop than to see a huge overhead slide that reads “Let’s talk about Sex” as the song with the same title plays in the background. There were other similar songs that followed and some of the attendees even danced a bit before taking their seats. This workshop was specifically for women and those who identify as women and by the start of the workshop the room was packed.
The goal of the presentation was to provide women with empowering information about sex and intimacy, education on the anatomy of a woman, and how to renew the mind and body after going through trauma so that sex is enjoyable again. After all, shouldn’t it be? After the welcome and disclaimers that graphic content would be covered, Kelechi Ubozoh began the workshop with a captivating personal story about relationships, trauma, and healing. She also addressed the challenges of self-acceptance with one’s own desires after a traumatic event, and how she used her experiences to fuel her current state of empowerment and recovery.
Lisa Smusz used her amazing facilitation skills and literally gave us a new vision and ideology of the female reproductive system, and how to gain optimal results out of it. She provided great history around the nation’s uber patriotic past when there was a point in time that women weren’t even allowed to seek self-pleasure, and development of the sex toy industry. She did a brilliant job of explaining where a lot of the lack of empowerment comes from for women, and really educated us on many levels of the “how-to” when it comes to achieving orgasms. I was so overwhelmed with intrigue and full of new insight and so glad that we were finally having these conversations. What I loved most was the idea of sexual wellness being a 9th dimension of the 8 dimensions of wellness as defined by SAMHSA. The 8 dimensions of wellness are unique and special and really do address the needs of all people, but the concept leaves out one of the oldest and natural healing tools, which is a fulfilling and meaningful sex life.
To bring it all to a close was Jenee Darden who talked about her own self and societal stigma, and what it meant for her to be comfortable with her sexual self as a black woman. She gave us a little history of how she found erotica written by black people that wasn’t doused in American stereotypes, and how that became a wellness tool to combat the negative imagery and ideals about black women. She even gave more positive and empowering images of what it means to be sexy, which we often assume is just a woman with her goods on display.
During the adjournment of the enlightening and intriguing presentation, the ladies were given safe sex packets and homework to go do some “self” discovery. Literature donated by Good Vibrations was also raffled off . The language was raw and real, the stories were insightful and inspiring, and the information was empowering and enlightening. I loved this workshop and I really hope to see it at other conferences in the future as well as the fruition of the 9th dimension of wellness!
I’m Proud to be a Part of History: PEERS Hosts First Workshop on Women, Sexual Wellness and Empowerment at Alternatives
A few months ago, the PEERS staff was buzzing about pitching workshops to Alternatives. Our Statewide Project Coordinator Kelechi Ubozoh walked into my office one day and asked would I be interested in doing a presentation on sex and women at Alternatives. I thought she was joking and laughed, but she was serious. I’ve done various presentations on sex before, but it was outside of the mental health advocacy community. I told her sure, but thought our workshop’s idea didn’t have a snowball’s chance of coming to life. I’m so glad I was wrong.
We brought our idea to Executive Director Lisa Smusz and invited her to be part of the group. Before we could finish our pitch, our ED/college feminist lecturer said, "YESSSSS!" But we didn’t want our workshop to be a typical Sex 101 lecture. We decided to make the focus sexual pleasure for women. As women with mental health challenges, we carry two taboos. Society discourages women from being in control and comfortable with our sexuality. Add to that being stigmatized for having a mental health challenge. Also the discourse on sex and people with mental health challenges is often negative and depressing. When I was doing research for the subject, it was mostly about sexual dysfunction or abuse. Don’t get me wrong, those are real and serious issues that should be addressed. But I found little content on how sex can be a wellness tool for mental health consumers. Don’t we all deserve pleasure?
Fast forward to Friday, December 6, 2013 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Austin, TX. About 100 women came to our workshop. They entered the dim room to the sounds of Floetry’s, “Say Yes,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” “Love to love ya” by Donna Summers and more. They were given raffle tickets to win erotic literature kindly donated by the woman-owned adult store Good Vibrations. Women were dancing in their seats and excited. And projected onto the screen were the words “Let’s Talk About Sex.” The expressions of their faces were a mixture of curiosity, surprise and a look of “finally!” I never felt such energy at Alternatives.
Kelechi spoke about regaining sexual pleasure after trauma and talking to your doctor about your libido if it’s weakened by medication. Lisa gave us the 411, ins and outs, on our vaginas. Excuse me, she said the correct term is actually "vulva." She broke down how sex reduces stress and other healthy psychological benefits. And she covered which psych drugs have more/less of an effect on the libido.
I closed things out with my graduate school thesis on black erotic literature and discussed how consuming or creating erotic art and literature can be sexually empowering and liberating. In my thesis I explored negative stereotypes of African-American sexuality and how erotic authors were creating work to redefine black sexuality and tell their own stories. I argued the same could be done for people with mental health challenges. To paraphrase Toni Morrison who said write the books you want to read; mental health consumers can create images of sexuality we want to see. Or look for other artists who are doing so. I read some erotic poetry by various authors. Although it was 30 degrees outside, it didn’t feel that way during my readings inside.
The women left our presentation with prizes, learning tools, condoms and lube (thanks Austin HIV Prevention Program!), a discount to the woman-owned adult store Good Vibrations, big smiles, inspiration and empowerment. They also left with a unique sticker.
SAMHSA launched a campaign called the 8 Dimensions of Wellness. Finance, physical health, spirituality were some of the dimensions listed they found were important to maintaining mental wellness. Leah Harris, Communications and Development Coordinator for the National Empowerment Center, heard about our workshop. During a visit to the Bay Area she mentioned that sex should be a 9th Dimension of Wellness. Lisa got inspired with a design and voila, the sticker was born.
I’m proud of our groundbreaking work at the conference. Herstory was made! When a woman tells you that your words, your story empowered her…that’s an honor. There truly is power in pleasure.
I am new to Alternatives. People raved about past conferences, stating that it's life changing. Of course, with such glowing endorsements I was wary. I tend to be a little cynical. With my background as a mental health therapist, I certainly didn’t expect to find a place "where I belong." So far, I have been reticent to disclose my status as a therapist, as there seem to be many people who have been wounded and further traumatized by well-meaning therapists caught up in the medical model mental health system where successful treatment is defined as docility and compliance. I am fairly new to the consumer movement and peer run services. I stopped being a counselor because of my own mental health "issues" — depression, anxiety, PTSD, compassion fatigue, caregiver burnout. You see, my husband is a bone marrow cancer survivor for nearly 6 years. I have watched him die and come back to life several times. As a result, he is disabled. This is not the life we expected at age 40. So, I gave up my counseling career because I didn't feel that I was effective and I certainly couldn't reveal to my clients my experiences with mental health issues because in traditional mental health circles, it is generally not acceptable to self-disclose. So, I gave up that path (for now) because there didn’t seem to be a place for me, the wounded healer, as my wounds were current and not tidily in the past.
Last April, I went to work as a project manager at a peer run organization (PEERS) working on a project that studies consumer involvement in the mental health system and encourages consumers to share their experience with policy makers at the state level. This is how I came to arrive at Alternatives, an immersion course in consumer culture. However, given many people’s negative experience with the mental health system, I don't discuss my past life as a therapist.
So, fast forward. I am sitting in the Friday key note breakfast session, listening to William Kellibrew IV, discuss his story. He is an international advocate for civil, human, women, children, and victims' rights. In grade school, he witnessed his family being murdered in front of him and he begged for his life. He lost his "voice and choice" regarding the loss of his family and direction his life was to take. He was told to forget about it, and move forward. As a result, he experienced immense life threatening pain and a desire to commit suicide. Fortunately, a compassionate school official intervened and he was able to get connected to help. He talked about his experience with a therapist who gave him voice and choice — in the hospital cafeteria, allowing him to choose his meal. Many years later, he reconnected to that therapist and learned that during the time they were together, she had lost her mother. However, being part of the traditional mental health system, she could not tell him that. Instead, she gave him choice, because she had also lost hers. He went on to say that the mental health system often views people with mental health issues as having severe deficits that are an impairment. However, in the case of his counselor Christine, her deficit was actually a tremendous strength, allowing her to identify with her young client and return to both of them a healing intervention — voice and choice.
I came to Alternatives unsure of my place within the consumer society and also unsure of where I belong in the mental health system, which I imagine views my mental health issues — depression, anxiety, PTSD, compassion fatigue, and caregiver burnout, as kryptonite that weakens my effectiveness as a therapist. I leave Alternatives with the hope that my mental health issues are actually my invisible strengths, which allow me to connect with others, and in turn, heal myself. I leave Alternatives knowing that there is a place for me.
Today was the much-anticipated workshop on Empowering Women’s Voices for Greater Intimacy and Wellness. Many thanks to Kelechi Ubozoh for coming up with the idea for the workshop, and Jeneé Darden for her leadership in writing the proposal. I was a bit nervous to be honest, but the amazing women I co-presented with and the energy of that jam-packed room made for one of the most memorable presentations I have ever had the privilege to participate in. The only downside? There was not enough time to cover all the information we wanted to share. To that end, I’m dedicating this blog space to answering some of the most common questions people have been asking about the workshop.
Q: Why bring a workshop on sex to Alternatives?
Alternatives is a conference that attracts people who are interested in challenging the status quo and highlights whole person approaches to mental health, so really it’s the perfect place to raise this important and controversial topic for a deeper discussion.
Traditionally, sex and pleasure have been left out of the conversation when it comes to mental health. In fact, people with disabilities and people with mental health challenges are rarely viewed as sexual beings in our culture. And that’s a shame, because a healthy sex life can be an integral part of overall mental and physical wellness.
Even the wonderful, holistic approach to mental health addressed by SAMHSA's Eight Dimensions of Wellness doesn't address Sexual Wellness. We thought this workshop was a good opportunity to bring attention to this aspect of our well-being -- the 9th Dimension of Wellness, if you will.
Q: What are the benefits of a healthy sex life?
A: People who have regular sex (at least two times per week) have higher rates of immunoglobulin A which is important for immune function, are 45% less likely to develop heart disease, have lower stress rates, and better blood pressure readings. Sex can help ease pain, promote good sleep, and even help women improve their bladder control.
Sex and orgasms also lead to higher levels of oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps promote feelings of love and connection to your partner, so regular sex can be one important part of creating a happy and lasting relationship.
Q: Why was the workshop exclusively for women?
A: We see sexualized images of women everywhere: In music videos, in magazines, and on billboards. But in most cases the images we see aren’t really empowering women, they’re using women’s bodies and sexuality to sell a product. Women’s choices about sex are constantly criticized in the news and in media – a woman who enjoys sex is called a slut, a woman who chooses not to have sex is called frigid, a woman who is raped is accused of somehow inviting this act of violence. As a woman, sometimes it feels like there is no “right” way of being when it comes to sex.
We wanted to create a safe space for women to learn about their bodies, learn how to increase the pleasure they were experiencing when having sex, ask questions, and become empowered in a way that would be more difficult in a co-ed environment. Of course there are a lot of societal messages that are just as damaging to men. We recognize that they need information about their bodies and how to become more sexually empowered also, that’s just a different workshop. Maybe next year!
Q: I noticed that you didn’t talk about preventing sexually transmitted diseases or preventing pregnancy in the workshop. Don’t you think that’s irresponsible?
No one is discounting the importance of good information about preventing sexually transmitted diseases and family planning. Thankfully, there are people out there doing great presentations on that topic. We simply felt there was room for a workshop that dealt exclusively with pleasure and were excited to add this information to the mix. Of course, safer sex is better sex, so we distributed protection to all our participants at the end of the workshop to promote safer experimentation.
Q: What’s one thing you hope participants walked away with?
I would love it if women felt they understood their bodies better and felt empowered to ask for what they needed in the bedroom without shame or judgment. We as women are bombarded with so many messages and images about what we “should” be. If we as women could take a stand and come together to support each other and accept each other, that would go a long way in helping us all heal and be happier.
Q: Where can women who are interested in learning more about sex and pleasure go for information and support?
Planned Parenthood is a wonderful resource for women who need good, solid information and resources for STI prevention and family planning.
I also love the film Miss Representation. While it’s not a film about sex, it delves more into the topic of the impact of sexualized images of women and is very empowering. Totally worth a view, and I believe it’s available on Netflix. You can see a preview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gkIiV6konY
I also love the classes at Good Vibrations. If you happen to have a store near you, check out their calendar for more information.
Sharon Kuehn reflects on "Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness: A Narrative of Psychic Diversity"
“Language is the closest thing we will ever have to true magic.”
-Sascha DuBrul, Icarus Project Co-Founder
Sascha’s message landed in my body and my being, and immediately took root, opening a new sense of freedom and clarity. Our power is in the story we choose to tell, and the language with which we choose to tell it.
Sounds simple, but as Sascha noted frequently during his riveting presentation, "It's complicated. It's so important for people to be able to hold the complexity."
In Greek Mythology, Icarus’ father made him wings out of wax and feathers so he could fly. Despite warnings, he flew too close to the sun and fell into the sea. When Sascha met Jacks, (the co-founder of the Icarus Project), they began to see their altered state experiences as “having dangerous gifts, like wings.”
"We think in metaphors," Sascha explained.
As peers with lived experience of mental health issues, we can ask ourselves, and others, if our altered states are Alternative Dimensions or Psychotic Delusions (or something in between)? We each get to choose. "Psychotic episodes are like dreams people have when they are awake.” Sascha pointed out, “The difference between being a mad person and being an artist is knowing when to say things and when not.” The Icarus Project did not evolve out of the C/S/X Movement; it is connected to the global social justice movement. It draws on the rich soil of the underground—where seeds sprout and "new ideas get incubated."
Mental Health peers, with all of our sensitivities, have been compared to (as someone in the audience noted), "canaries in the coal mine." When we gather together in an open forum like Alternatives, we connect and realize – “What the hell are we doing in a coal mine?” Can we free ourselves? I recognize that I, metaphorically, can step out of the coal mine and into the fresh air to enjoy the warmth of the sun my skin!
If you missed this life-changing conversation that Sascha seeded, take heart. You, too, can choose to "leave society's package deal behind, and start something new" (as recommended by Bee, an inspired participant). As for me, I choose to free my thinking, my vocabulary and my self-concept of the mental illness minefield. Pathology, diagnosis and victimhood have nothing to do with the well-being I'm here to experience and expand. I’ll make meaning of my life and my experiences with my friends/family/community in the way I choose for my own health, happiness and conscious evolution.
Give it a try! Tell a new story of your complicated life, in which you are navigating the space between brilliance and madness. See how differently you experience the world when you stop pretending that you don't have wings.
On the first night of Alternatives, I was elated to premiere this founded way of operating which encapsulates the voices from the African Diaspora: Healing Through Word, Spirit and Sound workshop. For the past two years I was lucky enough to begin and head a project that addressed mental health challenges within the African American TAY community, using cultural preservation as a tool for healing trauma, called the Ebony Youth Project (EYP).
Through advocacy, determination, and the hard work of some amazing adult allies, I was able to begin a pilot with at the Juvenile Justice Center's Camp Sweeney, using the same goals and tools. Those groups were called Sankofa Sessions. Sankofa is an Akan (Ghana) term that literally means "it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot." It means that is so important to know the past, as to guide your present and enhance the success of your future. As a person of African descent in a country where Africans were forced into brutal chattel slavery, my parents made sure I knew who and where I came from before, both during and after slavery. For any body of people in a societal subset, cultural identity and pride is imperative to one's personal wellness and well-being. Knowing who you are and where you come from has huge impacts on a person's ability to relate to the larger society, gives a person a sense of self and belonging, and provides guidance and purpose to one's life.
The purpose of this workshop was to explore all of those ideals and to enlighten the community about how and what we can do to heal as a body of folks in a system that was not set up to provide adequate tools for healing the traumas/mental health challenges of African American people. My role for the workshop was to provide insight about the correlations between heritage and Sankofa as it relates to mental health, and to perform a poem to bring all the topics to a close. Markeeta Parker performed the welcome, Rashad Eady provided insight on his personal experience with the Sankofa Sessions, Douglas Stewart was the Master of Ceremonies and storyteller, and Rachel Bryant provided the psychological definitions and insight from a provider perspective. She presented a really thorough Powerpoint that ended with this idea of combating the effects of trauma using grace.
The room was jam-packed and throughout the workshop, there was song, poetry, laughter, discoveries, and the warmth of atonement. There was open dialogue throughout the presentation, and we covered topics such as libations, African spiritual practices like Ifa, the African/Latin connection, black psychology, and basically every aspect of what it means to "Sankofa" that you can think of. At the end of the workshop there was a raffle for a documentary called Hidden Colors, which covers history way before slavery that is not known by the masses. I was very glad that we can have these conversations at Alternatives, the longest running mental health conference in the world, and talk openly and honestly about the source of mental health issues for people of African descent and how to heal them collectively through word, spirit, sound.
The word alone gives great pause. There is so much silence and shame around the issue that it can be quite scandalous to discuss. When I reflect about my own journey as a suicide attempt survivor, one of the things I remember is how discouraged I was to talk about it.
Attending the Sound Out for Life (SOL): Talking About Hope, Suicide, and Suicide Stigma to Peers and Communities workshop was such a validating and eye-opening experience. The Center for Dignity, Recovery, and Empowerment created a task force consisting of suicide attempt survivors with diverse backgrounds in the areas of research, evaluation, and lived expertise.
"So often the suicide prevention world and the empowerment and recovery world have been disconnected," said DeQuincy Lezine.
One of the many goals of Sound Out for Life (SOL) is to bridge those two worlds and generate evidence based practices to continue the work. For example, SOL is creating a speakers' bureau comprised of suicide attempt survivors. They will share stories that will work to actively shape and change the way people feel about suicide.
Key messages for speaking on suicide include:
1. Avoiding terms like "successful/failed attempt" and using "died by suicide" or "killed themselves."
2. Don't provide detailed descriptions of methods of suicide, unless necessary; if so explain why.
3. Don’t focus on the pain suicide causes other (guilty message).
4. Don't attribute suicide to one single cause; acknowledge complexity.
5. Do share a message of personal empowerment.
6. Do share about support.
7. Do highlight the truth that you are not alone.
I'll never forget when Leah Harris shared that some people who have continued to have suicidal feelings are still considered recovered. It isn't always the case that once the feelings are gone, you are permanently recovered. That was a message I've never heard before, mainly because I've never openly discussed suicide.
"The fact is, if you are thinking of killing yourself actively then you’re having a very intense encounter with your own existence. And that's a really important thing," said Eduardo Vega.
There are a lot of barriers that will face SOL and the stigma is real, but hopefully having a space to talk about this often silenced topic will start a healing process and more importantly save lives.
The answer is a resounding, "Hell YEAH, y'all!"
I jumped into my first interactive exercise-based workshop of Alternatives this afternoon in a session titled "Get the Job You Want." It's a lofty goal to achieve in a mere 90 minutes, but I was intrigued and wanted to see where it would lead.
The workshop was facilitated by Robyn Priest, a spirited Australian with a killer sense of humor and equally good heart. She works for BestBet, an agency that is all about teaching people to empower themselves in all aspects of their lives.
At the beginning, Robyn did fully disclose that the full-length workshop typically took place over the course of two days, but she wanted to give us a few skills — or at least a new way of thinking — with which we could leave and start applying to our lives immediately.
I had high hopes after she dropped this piece of hopeful and encouraging wisdom: every single one of us, no matter what has happened in our lives, is absolutely valuable in the workplace.
But the problem is that so few of us actually believe that. We are the masters of negative self-talk rooted in our own inaccurate self-portrayals or hurtful and unsupportive comments from others throughout our lives.
We say things like:
"If I get that job I may become unwell. I may need to take the job that doesn't make me sick."
"I have an AOD history so I can't do a job."
"Nobody is going to look at me because there's all these other cool people."
And some of us are so harmfully self-deprecating that when we do get a job, we have a woefully distorted perspective. Instead of patting ourselves on the back that our hard work paid off and our new employer is the lucky one to have us, we think of how grateful we are to even have a job because we don't deserve it.
What would Robyn say to that, you ask?
She would say, "No more!"
It's time to stop judging ourselves by our circumstances and internalizing things that happen to us as character flaws.
It's time to start reframing negatives into positives.
After the rousing pump-up speech, we broke into small groups for our first exercise. We were given a piece of paper with two columns titled "Negative" and "Strength." On the left side, we listed terms that we or others use to describe us that we consider negative. After sharing them with the group, we all chimed in to reframe each negative term into a strength.
A handful of my own personal negatives included self-doubt, perfectionism, and being too nice. But with a quick reframing makeover, I was no longer any of those things. Instead, I was self-reflective, attentive to details, and warm and compassionate.
We then all shared one of our new positive traits and Robyn posted them for all to see. The poster paper was overflowing with words denoting kick-assery.
Efficient. Tenacious. Reflective. Experienced. Sympathetic. Compassionate. Relatable. Dedicated. Bilingual.
And as Robyn so quickly pointed out, who the heck wouldn't want to hire someone with all that amazingness?
And in a mere 10 minutes, you could feel the entire energy of the room shift.
We closed with a final exercise upon which we could ruminate for hours, but pushed us to take action with words on paper. On one side of the page we wrote who we are as an employee, and on the other, what we are passionate about.
Part of finding the ideal career, Robyn says, is to find jobs that match your loves and personality. If you love working with people, don't work in a job that isolates you. If you love solving problems, don't try to find work doing something mindless.
And just like that, everyone in the room took the first steps in getting the jobs they want.
It is Saturday night and I am looking into the eyes of young brown faces looking back at mine. Almond shaped eyes, honey brown eyes, and coal black eyes are captured in a moment in time. I see smiles, nods, smirks, grins, and half chuckles.
I am standing in the company of small giants at “The Griots of Oakland: Voices from the African American Oral History Project” exhibition opening, at the African American Museum and Library in downtown Oakland. A griot is an African tribal storyteller who perpetuates the oral tradition and history of a village of a family.
During the course of two years, hundreds of Oakland African American boys and men were interviewed by other African American male youth in a project put on by the Center for Healthy Schools and Communities, Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African American Male Achievement, and Story For All. The outcome was an incredibly powerful exhibition and an uplifting book capturing their stories.
I felt pride rising inside of me as I looked at the quotes from 100 African American boys and men aged 6-24 throughout Oakland.
“You need to know that African American men are proud of themselves and don’t necessarily hate each other.
It’s a stereotype that we hate each other. We don’t hate each other. It’s all love at the end of the day.”- Aaron Johnson
Dreams were discussed, role models were named, and discriminating beliefs were challenged. These were stories that yearned to be told and needed to be told.
This inspiring exhibit will run through March 1, 2014.
To buy the book and find out more information go to: http://www.healthyschoolsandcommunities.org/Alameda-6/griot.html
The Transition Age Youth Initiative is in its second year of TAY leadership, activism, and systems change! We are continuing to enhance youth and young adult leadership, provide the community with tools and insight for better engagement with TAY, and doing what we do best, which is use our life experiences and catapults to brighter futures. We have a new twist to our program, called the TAY Empowerment Team meeting.
The goal of this meeting is not only to provide TAY with life and work skills, peer support, and empowering activities; this group is also a source of connection for TAY in the community as well as TAY supporters and advocates! If you work in the field with TAY, we would love for you to join us for these meetings in an effort to create a cohesive and supportive environment between TAY and the people who have taken on the awesome role in their profession of providing help and hope for young people.
Each month we explore a different topic, such as safe sex education, nutrition and health workshops, defining TAY wellness tools, connecting with other communities (such as the LGBTQI2S), and creating expressive art, among other fun and interactive topics! We meet every 3rd Wednesday of the month at our PEERS office from 4-6 pm and we serve refreshments. Join Us! Invite TAY you work with! Invite your colleagues! Community connections create great tools for systems change!
Please contact Bre Williams at 510 832-7337 or firstname.lastname@example.org for any questions!