Social Worker Extraordinaire, New York City
Verena was my partner in a late night on-call volunteering work for over five years. It was called Domestic and Other Violence Emergencies (DOVE) Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital where we would expect a call between the hours of 6PM and 7AM and get ourselves to the ER without a real clue of what we may expect to see. We would essentially relieve the social workers during the night by being first responders to a trauma patient, specifically after a sexual assault or domestic violence incident. I know the program transformed me immensely and one of the things I was able to take away was meeting and staying in touch with so many incredibly talented and compassionate individuals. These women had full time jobs but spent time during nights and weekends facing some of the harshest realities of our society, and helping others start on a long road to healing. Verena took that experience and with her incredible gift of listening and empathizing was able to shine even brighter. And all the roads we have to walk are winding, as they say. So proud to call her my friend and learn a couple of new (and surprising) things about her from the Q/A below.
2. Where is your hometown?
3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?
I’m an advocate, a social worker and a trauma-focused psychotherapist in the crime victim unit of a large hospital. I’m also an adjunct professor in the graduate department of Columbia University School of Social Work, a faculty member of the post-graduate Trauma Training Program at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, and a freelance trainer and consultant with various organizations working on gender-based violence and human rights.
4. What was the journey like to get where you are (career wise)? When was the mental shift to start the journey?
It was a journey alright, in both the figurative and the literal sense of the word. Growing up in a household with domestic violence, I began traveling my way out of reality years before I could physically travel away. Since an early age, I developed the ability to dissociate from my own experiences and attune to the experiences of the people around me, listening and giving my time to others as an instrument for confessions of both anguish and happiness. I didn’t know it back then, but listening to other people and accompanying them through arduous journeys would soon become my passion and my life. But it would take many more miles of physical travel, new beginnings and second chances, from Rome to London to Dublin and back to Rome, before I could find my way to New York City and learn to re-attune to my own emotions.
Rome lives on a past so glorious to challenge the passing of time and New York transcends time because its strength lies in the hopes of its inhabitants, vibrating to the beats of the most colorful humanity. After nearly 15 years, this is home.
5. Biggest accomplishment since making the (physical/mental) move?
I’m proud of the work I do and immensely grateful for the privilege to provide long-term quality trauma-informed treatment to survivors independently of their ability to pay. Compassionate and competent care should not be off limits to people who cannot afford the big bucks and should not have an arbitrarily-set expiration date. How do you begin a journey of recovery by telling someone that they only have a set amount of sessions to get better?
The most harrowing consequence of trauma is the shattering of human connections. You see, trauma is what happens but also what doesn’t happen; it’s the lack of support and understanding after a difficult experience or even worse the presence of blame. My work has taught me that when survivors experience being seen and heard by a safe and compassionate person, and without boundary violations, they start to create a new template for what human relationships can be; they begin to see themselves not as damaged but as people who have been hurt but are not broken and are capable of moving forward in life. For trauma survivors, safe and reliable connection is an oxygen line straight to the heart.
We now know a tremendous amount about trauma and about how to mitigate and transform the effects of trauma, but we are not doing a good-enough job at making sure that all survivors have access to specialized modalities to help them move beyond survival and reclaim what was stolen from them - the ability to live in the present moment. As I realized that the most traumatized survivors are also the most underserved, I set out to train in modalities that are experiential and aim at providing a reparative experience. I trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and brought all these modalities and knowledge to my work, where survivors don’t have to worry about how they are going to pay for therapy or about having to recover from years of abuse in just a few weeks.
6. What was biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?
I feel defeated by the lack of available resources to overcome injustice. I can tell a survivor that she is not to blame and not deserving of violence but I can’t make an affordable apartment materialize for her so she and her children can be safe; I can’t make more beds appear in domestic violence shelters and I can’t make a conviction happen for a rapist who doesn’t even see the inside of a court room, let alone the inside of a cell. I can’t make competent trauma-informed psychiatrists lower their fees or take common insurances, and I can’t stop Family Court judges from awarding visitation rights to perpetrators of violence solely based on their rights as parents. If you terrorize your family, physically and/or psychologically, your rights as parent should not override the rights of the people you inflicted harm upon.
I don’t know how to overcome barriers deeply entrenched in patriarchy, lack of privilege, systematic racism, and gender-based oppression, but I think that it will take the big village and the strength of movements like Black Lives Matter, feminists and LGBTQ rights activists, and the many other voices of the historically unheard people in partnership with organizations like The American Civil Liberties Union, committed to use their power for the advancement of justice. I’m waiting for the revolution Tracey Chapman sang about… remember? It’s sounds like a whisper!
7. Advice for other women?
Make a lot of noise and reject any and all of the oppressive messages that have been battered into the hearts and minds of girls and women since forever; chief among them the message that women share any responsibility in their victimizations. No more; not ever. Women should not have to live their lives from a harm-reduction perspective. Why should anyone have to make decisions based on what would make them more or less likely to be raped? The responsibility to commit interpersonal violence resides solely on the person who chooses to victimize another one. We need to stop policing women’s lives and hold perpetrators of violence accountable.
8. Where in the world do you feel “tallest”?
Laying down and looking up at the sky. There’s so much space for all of us.
9. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?
I’m going to embarrass myself given my age, but outside of my work my biggest passion is the rock band Oasis. Their music has been the soundtrack of my life and has accompanied me through all major life transitions, across countries, continents and redemptions. Sadly, the band doesn’t exist anymore but the funding brothers, Noel and Liam Gallagher, are still around and very much kicking, rock & roll style!
I followed Noel Gallagher on his North American tour last summer and had the time of my life. So I once again saved all my vacation days to follow him on his next tour this summer. Come July, I’m traveling to London, Rome, Barcelona, Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam and Brussel, to see Noel open for U2. You are only as old as you feel, and when I’m on the road I feel 16 years old (but with the independence and wallet of a woman in her late 30s; now that’s a dangerous combination! ☺).
10. What is the future goal/challenge (career and/or life goals in 5-10 years)?
Right now my biggest goal is to get more comfortable seating for the survivors I see for therapy. Welcome to the world of non-profit; we do amazing work but we don’t have enough resources. I dream of being able to transform my office into a haven of physical comfort, because my survivors are worth it. But I need better furniture. One day.
11. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?
I’m still afraid that I won’t be able to help the next survivor who enters my therapy room. A few days ago, a girl sat in front of me with visible cuts all over her arms, several suicide attempts in her past, and a combination of hope and resignation in her eyes. Little did she know that as her voice trembled and she attempted to negotiate between hope and despair, I was engaged in the same struggle inside of me. I heard a familiar voice whispering, “You won’t be able to help her.” Instead of trying to silence it, I welcomed it and recognized it for what it was; a very young part of me who learned that it’s better not to take chances. And so I whispered back, “It’s okay little one; thank you for trying to protect me from disappointment, but I got this. I can help her.” If this young woman could find the courage to trust again, I could find the courage to walk alongside her. I told her, “I don’t know how and I don’t know how long it will take, but I’m going to see you through this.” She smiled and I smiled.
12. Anything you'd do differently (if you had another go at life)?
Yes, quite a few. I would be kinder to myself from a much younger age. I’ve only really began to treat myself with the same loving kindness I treat other people in recent years, and even now I can slip back into old habits of self-devaluing too easily. As a woman, I tolerated too much and have apologized too many times for things that required no apology or, even worse, for events in which I should have been on the receiving end of an apology. But where I have no regrets is laughter… I have had some great laughs in this life, by myself and with other people.
13. What inspires you?
People who live with disabilities and continue to be examples of dignity and strength in a world where those in power shamelessly mock them and suffer no consequences; immigrants and refugees who travel through hell for a new life and to contribute honestly to the wealth of this country only to live with the daily fear of being separated from their loved ones; survivors of sexual violence who have the courage to speak up even when they are given the message that it’s okay for someone to “grab” them and exploit them to satisfy a sense of entitlement. Time and time again, it is when I’m faced with the worst of humanity that I find the best of humanity as well.
14. What are you hopeful about?
A new wave of activism with a no-tolerance attitude for injustice and violation of human rights; this new wave is rightly defiant of the old and defective argument that there should be space for all opinions if the opinions presented are, in fact, about hatred and violating human rights. We can disagree on whether or not access to weapons keep people safer or contribute to widespread violence. I happen to agree with the latter argument but we can talk about it. If you think LGBTQ people should not have the same rights and civil liberties as everyone else or if you believe that it is okay to torture prisoners of war, we are no longer having a difference of opinion; you are advocating to deny someone their humanity and basic rights and my tolerance for your “opinion” does not extend to violation of human rights.
15. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favorite reads?)
The Daily Show, an Oral History (I miss Jon Stewart). I have given away more copies of Trauma and Recovery that I can remember. The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, by child psychiatrist Bruce Perry, changed me as a psychotherapist for the better and forever. Borderliners, by Peter Hoeg, was the book that made me feel not alone as a girl. The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, should be a mandatory read for anyone working with trauma. Why Does He Do That, by Lundy Bancroft, is the gift of freedom for any woman who has experienced domestic violence. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, by Jon Krakauer, should be read by anyone who works in a college in just about any capacity. Willow Weep for Me is a beautifully-written personal narrative of trauma and depression and one of the few works of non-fiction portraying the recovery journey of a woman of color.
16. Who is a “WOW Woman” in your life who inspires you (and why)?
My EMDR supervisor, Leah Leatherbee. Leah is the most gifted therapist I know, a dedicated teacher and, above all, a woman who radiates good energy and warmth. She is that person who leaves a room better than she found it and never seems to run out of encouragement for others and sunshine to share. You can learn more about her here: parnellemdr.com/members/lleatherbee/
17. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?