Over this past year or so, I’ve changed in a way that I can’t get across in light conversation, and I’m mindful that if I don’t actively work on opening up, I could sink into an internal life that is entirely separate from the version of me that people interact with. I’ve also realised I’ve been knocking about for a while now, and there are younger people around who observe my actions, listen to my words, absorb my work, and lately, seek me out for advice. I have been led by the examples of those around me that I relate to, and trust. So, while some things I won’t share here, others I won’t hide. I want to be trustworthy and, having put so much value on doing this for others, I want to be seen.
So, I will try to explain what has happened – this may be of interest if you are:
- interested in the long term impacts of interpersonal trauma
- interested in involving people with lived experience in work relating to their experiences
- interested in me as a person and/or a professional
Most of what I’ve done as a professional has been driven by a need to validate my existence through service to others, upholding the identity of a person that contributes to society and is overcoming, or utilising, their childhood trauma and disadvantages to do so. This started with my work in community arts, which I loved in many ways. It brought many beautiful people and moments into my life. My time spent gigging, doing sound tech, running events and acting as a community musician gave me a language to connect with new people wherever I go, tools to connect with myself, and plenty of transferable skills that I’m still drawing on. I have zero regrets about dropping into research without the academic background, and having to backfill. Music and song saved my life, many times. And, my arts practice, engagement work and experience of running a small business has definitely given me an edge. So has having PTSD; a semi-permanent state of fight or flight can make you incredibly productive (with a high cost I am gradually paying off), and the self-knowledge it takes to manage trigger responses is a hard won but shiny prize.
Anyway, I wanted to do more. Put simply, the world wasn’t right, and I wanted to make it right. Community arts put an – albeit lovely – individual-sized band-aid on a societal-sized problem. So I spent a few years freelancing on co-production projects; contributing to discussions on policy and practice re-form as someone that could engage with government by using my relative privilege as a former foster kid with a degree-level education. This freelance lifestyle lasted me through to my late 20s, and the flexibility in hours and type of work saw me through some pretty serious physical health problems without having to completely stop working for too long at a time. Throughout these years I had a few experiences which compounded my childhood experiences, and made me reluctant – at times, unable – to engage with others. But I pushed through, reading many books, attending a few short-courses in psycho-education and counselling, and doing lots of self-directed, trial and error, exposure therapy. In a way, unknown to me at the time, the work of engaging in discussion on social care policy was part of that exposure therapy. It helped me to understand my childhood traumas in context with the world they happened in.
In my late 20s, in response to one of those experiences that compounded a view of the world as just vile – to give myself purpose, a reason to keep living – I moved to London to start a research career, with a focus on policy and making the world better. I have quickly built a solid career as a researcher, working my absolute sodding socks off in three jobs and one long-term engagement project alongside hitting the books to backfill my theoretical knowledge. The first two were agency-based social research roles, with most of my clients being government and public services, and an occasional charity, academic institution or for-profit enterprise doing something interesting. Unsurprisingly, I quickly honed a specialism in qualitative research and public engagement, with a side focus on engaging seldom heard and marginalised groups – frankly, it’s easier to design a process or create an atmosphere that works for the outsider when you are one. Alongside this, with my evenings and weekends, I did a two-year project with a group of care experienced young people, enabling them to create podcasts and mini-research projects. The third job, which I left about 4 months ago, focused purely on research to inform children’s social care policy, and involved building a lot of team capacity and processes while delivering a large portfolio of challenging work. The place of work I helped to build no longer exists, following an unpleasantly paced merger and major shift in strategy and structure.
It’s very difficult to navigate writing about this. On the one hand I’d like to call out some institutional practices and individual behaviours that I’ve observed over the years, particularly regarding the responsibilities given to staff members with lived experience (especially those managing others with lived experience while working on related topics), alongside a failure of those with more privilege to really prioritise understanding (not just applauding) the work we do. On the other hand, I a) know many people who are doing what they believe to be the right thing, as best they can in a given institution, and I don’t enjoy hurting them or navigating all too human defences, and b) tire of explaining that managing emotional labour is one aspect of utilising lived experience at work, alongside many positive aspects. The fact that it comes with challenges does not mean that people shouldn’t be doing it. This blog isn’t about addressing these issues, so I’m not going to unpack it all now, but I am aware of the irony of focusing largely on myself rather than the environments that brought me to this point, and am reflecting on many things (including the extent to which people can influence their workplace culture from different levels of seniority, and whether a big institution such as government could be considered more than the sum of its parts when it comes to decision-making).
Abuse of power by state-appointed carers, and having this validated by a bigger power i.e. my woefully misinformed corporate parent, is a key theme in the story of my childhood. Working at a government funded research centre, focusing on research to inform policy in children’s social care, was the epitome of bringing my personal and professional experience together in my mission to make things better. It was a tough year, but I learned a lot and am deeply proud of everything I and the qual crew pulled off given some far-from-ideal circumstances. Making major and hard-won contributions to creating a culture in which I and others like me could operate safely while producing useful outputs, then watching it be dismantled in a merger as an entirely new organisation and strategic direction was created, was nothing short of devastating. But it also had some positive and unexpected outcomes.
Outside of my professional life, I’ve spent many years ‘doing the work’ of processing my childhood experiences and dealing with the feelings attached to them. Over the past year or two, I have accessed repressed memories that I’ve been working towards for a very long time. This has also been devastating. Some of the physical symptoms have been loud, alarming, and difficult to live with day-to-day, but I’m made of tough stuff and I fair alright overall. These two trajectories have culminated in realising that I’ve spent my whole adult life coping by living inside a story about overcoming trauma and making the world better. I’ve made a sufficient amount of progress that I’m now grieving for what is and what never was, and capable of living outside of that story – my new story says I am always learning how best to live with my more unpleasant experiences, making the most of my many privileges and positive experiences, and my existence is justified simply by being.
Thankfully, I still find our species utterly fascinating – I’m sure there is a part of me that will always be like “WHAT ARE WE ALL DOING WHY ARE WE SO WEIRD” and over time that part of me has come to ask those questions in lower case more often – so I’m quite content being a researcher. I’ve also come to realise some smaller things about myself, like I’m particularly interested in unpacking the sort of complexity that only lives in large-scale societal problems, and I’m reliant on clear and consistent procedures at work as this relieves some burden in navigating the world as a neurodivergent person. So, I’m returning to social research, though not leaving market research behind entirely. With a bit of exposure, I’ve come to better understand the dual role of the marketplace and governance in creating and sustaining a society. Crucially, for the first time, I am making real choices without the weight of upholding a hero’s journey narrative. I am a whole and actual person, beyond a series of fictional characters living in a high-stakes storyline, though I’m very grateful to those characters for creating a life I can live in, and to the little smart person inside me who drove the ship to get us here while protecting herself.
I don’t know if this will resonate or how this is going to land – I often find people write odd stories about me in their heads, and no judgment; people can only understand what’s in-front of them based on their own experiences, I’m a bit odd, and our society is riddled with all kinds of biases. So I hope you’re hearing a balanced tale of challenges and joy, rather than lazily writing a sob story, or one of hero worship – but I’m rolling the dice, what’s this life if we’re not brave enough to live it?