In Our Blood
A Therapist’s Honest Reckoning With Her Own Mental Health
BY ELIZA STATON
When we learn to overcome and transcend our issues and troubles, we often become teachers who help others do the same. Psychotherapist and author Caitlin Billings is one of those teachers. She’s garnered wisdom and strategies in the name of letting go of shame, releasing the need to look good to others, and accepting her life and herself as they are—she’s had to, in order to survive the hand that life has dealt her.
Billings’ new memoir, In Our Blood, follows her journey and challenges with bipolar disorder while raising two children and fighting to regain her footing as a clinician. More importantly, her story shows us the power of confronting and accepting mental health issues, and the deep peace that can come from that acceptance.
Billings’ story and message are timely, in an era when social media bombards us with pictures of perfect bodies, fabulous vacations, stunning achievements and seemingly perfect families—all which can cause people to feel inadequate or inferior.
Billings’ journey toward accepting her mental health issues and loving herself is also more pertinent than ever, considering that the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in five U.S. adults and one in six U.S. youth (ages six to 17) struggle with mental health issues. Furthermore, the National Institute of Mental Health says suicide is now the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34.
Billings, who resides in Crockett, California, says she overcame abandonment issues and an eating disorder in college. But then, a hold-up at gunpoint broke her carefully balanced world apart, forcing her to seek more help.
When she eventually became a psychotherapist, she says she did so with the confidence that she was mentally and emotionally in a good place to help others. She had the training and certification as a licensed clinical social worker as well. Any mental health issues she’d faced in her past, she believed, had been adequately confronted and resolved.
She most definitely wasn’t planning on a relapse, nor the involuntary psychiatric hold that resulted because of it.
When Billings was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she says, “I felt denial, shock, embarrassment, shame. I worried that I was no longer competent or that others would see me as such.”
When Billings eventually started to get a handle on her mental health issues, it was short-lived. Soon after, her eldest child began to struggle with disordered eating and depressive symptoms. Convinced that she was to blame for her child’s struggles, Billings pivoted her attention to this new crisis, determined to keep it together for her family.
But then came allegations of sexual abuse in their home, which caused Billings to question her ability to protect her children. Shame and self-doubt followed, leading her to yet another mental health crisis. Amidst all this turmoil, her eldest child also came out as gender-fluid, forcing yet another kind of reckoning. To survive mentally and emotionally, Billings had to find a way to accept the difficult and unexpected challenges that reared up in their lives—and, ultimately, to accept herself.
Billings says her mission these days—one that she shares through her book, her practice, and via speaking engagements—is to help others release feelings of shame and perfectionism, and to embrace the lives they have and the people they are, right here and now.
Billings shared more of her thoughts through this Q&A with The Reporters Inc.
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What are some of the negative consequences of perfectionism that you’ve experienced/observed?
It’s one thing to strive to do your best, but to attempt to be perfect is self-defeating. Perfectionism breeds shame because people can’t live up to the expectation of being flawless. Shame and perfectionism unify to create a perpetual cycle of “not good enough,” which can result in shame-avoidance behaviors like social withdrawal, punishing one’s self with critical self-talk, disordered eating, excessive exercise, or holding others to unreasonable standards. Shame can also result in escapism in the form of addictions, putting others before one’s self, workaholism, or maintenance of inappropriate boundaries.
In what ways does our world today encourage us to strive for unattainable standards?
I think it depends on your country, culture, and subculture as well as your race and ethnicity, sexuality, gender or gender identity, age, class, ability, etc. Too many to name here. In the United States, we see emphasis placed on youth, beauty, heteronormativity, extreme adherence to cisgender stereotypes, Whiteness, and able-mind and body.
While it’s painful to accept that we don’t always get it “right”—or even worse, that no matter what we do, it will never be “right”—it’s even more painful to argue against and fight reality. We’re all imperfect, yet we struggle to live up to ridiculous standards. I think we’re fed the lie that to be perfect is to end our suffering, yet it’s precisely the opposite.
I’m in a phase where I’m brimming with ideas and immersed in the rote tasks that come with putting my big ideas into place. The more ideas we have, the more long-term work we create for ourselves, and the more opportunity there is to make mistakes. Since the launch of my book, I’ve realized that part of my perfectionism is to believe that I can do it all. This created situations in which I’ve mixed up appointment times, dates, missed deadlines, and generally dropped all the balls I was juggling. But these days, when I get myself into situations like these, I notice them for the lesson and reminder that they are, and give myself understanding, as well as more attainable goals.
How can we as a society destigmatize mental health issues?
We have to begin to really listen to and understand those who have experienced mental health issues. Let’s learn from one another about how to connect as human beings.
What advice do you have for parents like yourself with children struggling with mental health issues and the pressures of society?
Find support. Don’t blame yourself for what has happened, but instead focus on how to implement small, healing changes. Listen to your children and teach them how to love themselves by modeling unconditional love for yourself and them. Don’t focus on the child with mental health issues and leave the rest of the family out of the process. We all have our roles and we only have each other.
What do you recommend to parents beginning—and in the middle of—their parenting journey? Are there any ways to prevent a need for perfectionism?
Minimize being critical of yourself or your kids. I don’t have the answers to raising a conventionally successful child. I do know that many of my clients were raised in highly unsafe or critical environments and part of their walk toward radical acceptance is to learn how to stop trying to be perfect or please everyone.
In what ways did the sexual molestation case in your family affect your self-perception?
In the immediate aftermath, I felt like a naïve and flawed individual and that I should have known better than to have ever let my guard down. In the long-term, I’ve been able to understand that no matter what I do, I can never fully protect my children. It doesn’t mean that I don’t do everything in my power to try, but it also means that by accepting myself as a human who makes mistakes, I can make way for deeper connections with my children. If I tried not to think about it, or saw myself as only bad or only good, moving forward in an authentic way would feel nearly impossible.
What inspired you to write this book and tell your story?
Shame has this funny way of needing to be hidden, and I think on one level I knew that as painful as it would be, telling my story could lessen the burden of my shame because I know I’m not alone. I started out by sharing my story with a group of writers in a virtual writing community who didn’t know me and didn’t even know my real name. Their encouragement and urging was fundamental to the creation of my book.
What advice do you have for parents also struggling with their own mental health?
Seek connection with a safe person. Something is not wrong with you. Something happened to you, and you deserve a place to reinforce that truth. You are worth it.
What do you hope to achieve by telling your story?
I want to normalize the messy and complicated experience of being human. I hope my memoir speaks to other therapists, especially those just starting out. I want other parents to feel less shame and know they aren’t alone. I want to speak out about sexual trauma because, although we briefly saw the “Me Too” movement, childhood sexual abuse is rarely discussed from the parent’s perspective. Shame and denial work to keep these most damaging of crimes secret and protected. My message to those who read the book is the universal theme of embracing our imperfections or our complexities as beings who don’t fit conventional myths as a path toward radical acceptance and therefore, positive changes in our world.
In Our Blood is available for purchase here, through Amazon.
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