The Pen Is…Reflecting on Singledom and Global Politics

The podcast gets off to an intense start, as Ana discusses a piece she wrote on the last time she was single – her senior year of college, giving rise to a discussion around vulnerability, growth, and what it means to be in a relationship. Hana’s piece then takes the episode in a completely different direction, addressing how trauma plays a crucial role in the actions of governments and countries, while still giving insight into her self perception as a writer and person. Originally recorded on August 16, 2020.

Ana – The Single Life: A Reflection

My break-up with my ex was heartbreaking, freeing, and utterly transforming. And I was only 21. So young, so confused and bewildered, and terrified. My personal toolbox was nearly empty and so I had no awareness of how and why I behaved and thought the way I did. When I was with my ex, I was entirely negatively attached. We had trauma bonded and created an incredibly toxic codependent relationship. It was so caustic that I spent most of my days feeling physically ill because he wasn’t with me. Our relationship at that point was long-distance but short enough that I would waste away my weekends with him trying desperately to get my emotional and intimate needs met. When I returned home from these visits or “weekend booty calls” as I began to refer to them, instead of being emotionally buoyed, I felt drained. Unhappy, angry, and lonely. Loneliness is a theme that I can follow the storyline of even in my first memories. Scared, sick and scared, always searching for someone to tell me it’s ok and that these scary thoughts and feelings aren’t real – that I would actually be ‘seen’. 

The final ending of my relationship with my ex, though incredibly painful, was exquisitely freeing. I didn’t have to show up to anyone but myself. I didn’t have to be continually disappointed with someone or angry that my needs aren’t being met, yet confused as to why I didn’t actually know what they were. All my focus turned inward. I remembered that I loved to be social and I began to refocus on more friends. I found the friend group I had been longing to be part of. To feel part of something, to not feel so isolated and alone. I put myself out there. I began to date and allowed myself to have fun. 

With my nights truly alone, I began to create more routines for myself. Even though I had never lived with a partner at that point, having a partner in my life filled up my head so much that I didn’t know how to just be “me”. All my thoughts were about him and my unhappiness in our relationship. But being single, somehow made me happier and more fulfilled. This was when I began to write music. I would sit in my room in the house I shared with my sister and write and write and play and play. I would journal like mad and yet I still struggled. Struggled with my circular thoughts and internal talk of self hate and loathing. 

Loneliness. I couldn’t break free of it. Loneliness in relationship, loneliness without. Even then I wanted to be held in a way that transformed me, that saw me, that made me feel a sense of comfort, contentment, and calm – a way that I have never found in myself. So instead of doubling down on focusing inward, I focused out. I began the search for a ‘real’ connection, but only through the guise of romantic connection to a man.

I ran from myself. It was too dark and ugly anyway to think I could ever truly be loved and healed from the inside. My God, if I had had the insight then to seek help and guidance and to understand that the mind numbing, anxiety-ridden world I lived in wasn’t healthy or a livable truth. I had resigned myself to thinking that this is what life was and that it was all I deserved. I was convinced that I was unlovable, broken, shameful, ugly, and cold hearted. Yet, I knew I wanted the holy grail of love. It was as if I was on a fantastical quest to seek out a mythical creature, a creature only in my dreams and fantasies, that would break the spell I felt I was in. To find that feeling that swells in the pit of my stomach into my chest and out. At the time I believed it resided only in another human. One who chose me out of the crowd, who could see my inner light and beauty, that would be the key to unlock this hidden feeling that I only partially believed to be real. 

Of course the truth is that a golden nugget of understanding can only be found within. What I have discovered since is that once I began to find it within, then I could seek to blend it with others. I learned that the truth must be first understood and known in me, and that truth is falling in love with myself. I’ve always heard that one cannot fully love another unless you can love yourself first. How was I ever supposed to understand that unless I actually experienced it first? Seeing isn’t believing, feeling is believing. 

Those glorious nine months of singleton still live in my memory as one of the best years of my life. Because other than my painful search for self love; I was having fun, letting go, spending time with friends, finding and cultivating new passions, and living for myself. 

And here I sit, 14 years later on the verge of allowing myself to be single once again. Craving the time alone to cultivate a love affair with me. And knowing now, finally, that the holy grail was real after all. I had just needed to do the work to look in and to find the tiny, ever present, ever glowing radiance, that is the essence of my boundless love. 

Hana – The Intersection of Trauma and Diplomacy

It was while watching Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary series that something occurred to me that was so simple and true, I was embarrassed that I had never thought of it earlier. As an American and someone who had worked with Vietnam veterans, I had learned about the traumatizing effect the war had on Americans who were drafted to fight in a strange country, only to come back to the US and face the disapproval and shunning of a nation. I had thought about the stresses faced by those who were waiting to be drafted and those who evaded it through various creative means. I also thought about the impacts on the families of the soldiers who went overseas to fight and either never came back or came back a different person, with anger and anxiety that wouldn’t be recognized or treated for decades. 

What I had never considered was the impact on an entire nation of people who were living through a civil war and foreign occupation simultaneously. Hearing throughout the documentary the stories of south Vietnamese government officials, North Vietnamese soldiers, Viet Cong, and numerous civilians caught up in the conflict, I was amazed and ashamed. How had I never considered that the American impacts of the war would pale in comparison to the Vietnamese? In hindsight, this makes perfect sense. Our education system is pretty egotistical, considering everything from an American (meaning Western, European, Christian, male, educated, cis, straight,…) perspective, with the occasional tangent to “round out” the canon by referencing apartheid, Marie Curie, and maybe the Boxer Rebellion thrown in for good measure. Why would American schoolchildren need to consider one of our most embarrassing foreign policy maneuvers from the point of view of the country that, for all intents and purposes, beat us? And, to make matters worse, a Communist country one-third our size?

Once I realized how much more traumatizing the Vietnam War must have been to the people of Vietnam, it opened my eyes to the impacts of other wars and conflicts on the populations of other countries. Yes, South Africa had its Truth and Reconciliation process and post-war Germany did an admirable job acknowledging its role in the horrors of the Holocaust, but how much support have the people of Chile had in processing the terror of the Pinochet regime and have the Tutsi people of Rwanda been given the support they need to recover from their own attempted genocide? Thinking more broadly, even for the victors and perpetrators, what work has been done to help them deal with committing or witnessing atrocious acts? When an entire population of a country has gone through something terrible, how does it affect the collective psyche? When the entire Global South is still carrying the scars of the mercantilism and colonialism of centuries of Western European countries, how can they effectively deal with the new challenges of a warming planet? And how do those impacts show up in the decisions made by that country in domestic policy and foreign policy?

I began thinking about this on a policy level with Israel – a country that is polarizing in its creation, continued existence, and actions toward its residents and neighbors. I have Israeli cousins and, while I don’t know them nearly as well as my American family members, I know them as reasonable, normal individuals. Reconciling these relationships with a voting population that continues to support an administration that has committed human rights abuses is difficult. However, once I placed the Israeli population in the context of a generation that fled genocide in Europe and passed down a fear-driven and survivalist mindset, their actions start to make sense. This is not to justify continued oppression of Palestinians and of course there are other complicating factors, but placing a population within its historical context makes things understandable, which is the first step to finding common ground and thence, to creating change.

Most of the world’s major contemporary societies stigmatize mental and emotional health challenges and their treatment. Yet how much more effective could cross-border and cross-cultural exchanges be if diplomacy were informed by trauma-focused therapy? Is current trauma research applicable to country-level conclusions? How much more effective could organizations be in brokering peace talks, implementing health programs, reducing corruption and human rights abuses, and undoing the harm of imperialism and colonialism if they worked with a trauma-focused lens, placing countries’ actions in the context of historical events?

I’ve been interested in a career in diplomacy since my high school days and, though it’s been on the back burner for about 20 years, living overseas has made me more aware of the US’s place in a larger global context and has reignited that interest. It might be a pipe dream at this point to overcome the reluctance to incorporate therapy in something as tribal and mercurial as foreign policy (especially with populist administrations on the rise). But just because it’s unrealistic doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

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