Mental Health Champions: Why & How Caitlin Billings of Sana Therapy Collective Is Helping To…

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Mental Health Champions: Why & How Caitlin Billings of Sana Therapy Collective Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

Radical Acceptance: Every day I encounter things I have to radically accept. These might be disappointments, frustrations, or situations I absolutely abhor for myself and anyone else affected. A recent example is that I am working on radically accepting my peri-menopausal hot flashes. I don’t like them, but I can accept that the reality is I’m going to be experiencing them for a while. I can work to mitigate this issue, but I have to accept what is real for me right now.

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Caitlin Billings.

A Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of California, Caitlin Billings specializes in treatment and therapy for complex trauma. Through this work, Caitlin aims to subvert societal expectations and pressures of idealism through embracing self-love and imperfection. Her memoir, In Our Blood, launches July 12, 2022 from She Writes Press.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Firstly, thank you so much for the opportunity to be interviewed! I was born in the late 70s in Berkeley, CA and was raised for a short time by my mother and a tribe of Berkeley disability activists who left a lasting impact on disability rights and continue a proud and strong presence in Berkeley today. I mention this brief period of my life because even in the womb, I was surrounded by folks working toward causes of social justice and human rights.

I moved with my mom and later my adopted father to Humboldt County, CA. In those days, Humboldt was a very rural landscape of fields, forest, bay, and ocean. My childhood was a mixture of 80s pop culture (think Madonna and Cindi Lauper, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, MTV and Reagan politics) and breathtaking natural beauty. As a child I had no idea other people lived without clean beaches or the constant fog of the Redwood Forest ecosystem until I visited Los Angeles.

I went to high school in the early 90s and did a lot of theater and music (singing and choir). As a young child, I began writing stories and those morphed into poetry as a teenager. I wrote about being a young woman, relationships, sadness, triumph.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

One of my dreams has been to build an organization and group practice of clinicians with diverse identities and experiences who treat trauma. This spring, my dream was realized, and I created Sana Therapy Collective. We are a group of clinicians who have come together because of our like-minded approaches and philosophies about racial and social justice, trauma healing and integration, and de-stigmatization of the meaning of “therapy” and “mental health problems”.

We provide teen, adult, individual, couples, and group modalities. Our specialties include treating posttraumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, binge eating, substance use, sexual trauma, domestic violence, anxiety/depression, complex trauma, intergenerational challenges for first-generation Americans, and parenting after trauma and/or substance use recovery.

My message, philosophy, and core belief is that we are all doing the best we can at any given moment. I am drawn to work with those who feel judged, misunderstood, or marginalized. Some of my favorite clients have diagnoses like Borderline Personality Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, ‘treatment-resistant depression’, or histories of mental health experiences that felt harmful or un-affirming. I use a combination of building a healthy, authentic relationship, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, psychodynamic theory from a feminist perspective, and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to guide any work I do with my clients.

I started Sana Therapy Collective because I have experienced the power of an affirming, unconditional, therapeutic relationship first-hand as a client. I have felt misunderstood, alone, and scared when navigating the broken system of mental health care in this country as a patient. Stigma is real, and I hope to break down the barriers between “doctor” and “patient”, “therapist” and “client” by providing highly skilled, empathic, and real therapists who come from their own experiences and allyships to our communities.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

We all experience trauma and suffering as humans. It’s inevitable and impossible to escape. My backstory of trauma includes the reality of being adopted by my stepfather, which meant my birth father legally gave up rights to me as his daughter, and I did not meet him again until an accidental encounter in Berkeley at a Center for Independent Living reunion, the organizational heart of the 70s disability activism. This meeting was confusing, exciting, sad, and brought my adoption wound to the forefront of my life at the age of 14. As my teenage years continued, I felt depressed at times but usually brought myself out of it by hanging out with friends, writing, or performing theater or music.

I took a gap year as a foreign exchange student in Chiapas, Mexico during the height of the Zapatista rebellion. Chiapas was occupied by the Mexican military and during late 1994, tensions rose so much that I was sent to live in Merida, Yucatan with another family. I fell into a deep depression and had an unwanted, nonconsensual sexual encounter with a young man at a party. After leaving Mexico, I came home with sexual trauma, deep depression, and a new hatred of my body (a combination of trauma, overseas weight gain, and depression). I developed an eating disorder (anorexia) and struggled with ongoing depression, PTSD from the sexual encounter, and a barrage of ongoing self-hatred. My therapist at the time suggested I move away from home to attend college, and I was accepted at Antioch College in 1996. I earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts while there and worked through a lot of my trauma using theater and holistic/modern dance. In 2001, I met my spouse and after the horror of witnessing the September 11 attacks, we got married and conceived a child. This was, I think, our way of living life in the present moment because in some ways it felt like the world was coming to an end. We attended school and had another child. I received an MSW and he a secondary teaching credential from CalPoly Humoldt in 2008.

To be honest, I thought my demons were vanquished. I had settled into a predictable life and wanted to work with others who had experienced trauma and to provide the support and therapy that had helped me through my darkest times. In early 2010, I was held up at gunpoint in my neighborhood after dark while catching my escaping dog. I can mark this as the moment something in my brain clicked and a host of new PTSD and depressive symptoms began. After a failed attempt of anti-depressant medication (and a worsening of symptoms), I became suicidal and began harming myself. My first hospitalization was late 2010 and I was diagnosed with “sub-clinical bipolar disorder.” For the next decade I juggled motherhood, worsening bipolar disorder, and ultimately, seven psychiatric hospitalizations. Not to mention working full time and earning my clinical social worker licensure which enables me to treat clients and supervise students and new clinicians. I have come to understand that the triggering event for my bipolar illness was the hold-up in the dark of my neighborhood, and only worsened by an SSRI medication that sent my brain chemistry into chaos. This understanding, however, doesn’t erase the years of suicidal depression, breathless ambition, and my internalized stigma of mental illness and bipolar disorder, in particular.

I have come out as a professional therapist with a debilitating bipolar disorder to speak out about embracing our imperfections as humans and to push back against the stigma of severe mental health conditions like PTSD, bipolar disorder, borderline personality, and others. I’m also out as a mother of a gender-fluid child who encountered similar mental health issues to my own and the challenges therein.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I don’t think there was an “aha moment” for any of my professional manifestations. I am ambitious by nature and have a deep love of learning. I sought out writing groups and found an online community of memoir writers. We nurtured each other’s books and supported each other to attain publication. Many of us have done so through hybrid and small presses. I think the final trigger for me to decide to publish was the offer of a spot in the She Writes Press Spring 2022 author cohort. I had just been released from my seventh hospitalization, and it felt funny, ironic, and just…the right thing to do.

My group practice evolved in a similar way. I have mentored clinicians over the years and after my launch into full-time sole proprietorship private practice, I taught myself, through Google University, how to build a group practice. My experience has been to make one move forward after deciding to do something, educate myself, find support, and keep going. Nothing can be manifested without out taking the risk of vulnerability with the world and “putting yourself out there.” If it matters to you, do it. You are worth it. You matter. Your voice matters.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Well, last week my private office was flooded by a toilet, and I had to clean up inches of water from my office floorboards. I had to radically accept the fact that my office flooring (which my husband I laid) was ruined and because there is limited airflow to my office, the chance of mildew and mold was extremely high. I’ve had to quickly pivot and find a new space. Maybe not so interesting, but definitely frustrating!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My therapist has been amazing. She has helped me, over the last decade, to contend with life-altering events, severe mental illness, constant med changes, my denial, my fear, my suffering. Basically, she calls me on my shit. (Sorry — not sure if I can cuss here). The most important story I can share about her is that she visited me in the hospital on two different occasions, and even though I was at some of my deepest lows, the memory of her hugs and human connection to me, witnessing me at some of the most vulnerable moments of my life, has been extraordinary. She has influenced me to become the therapist I am today through her availability to me when in crisis, her steady presence, her willingness to call out those who have caused me harm in my life when I can’t, and her humor. Can’t forget the humor!

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Well, from a historical perspective, I think the stigma, at least in our country, is rooted in patriarchy, misogyny, white supremacy, and the treatment of mental health conditions as “problems” or something to be fixed (by wealthy white men, in the beginning) rather than finding the human connection and understanding of what a person needs to be able to survive in the world in a meaningful way. A partnership rather than a binary of “doctor” or “patient”, or a dialectic, polarizing folks into categories of “normal” and “flawed or broken”.

There’s also, in the United States, a focus on success and capitalism. If you are experiencing mental health symptoms or in need of a supportive lifestyle, suck it up. Don’t be a baby. Suit up, show up. Pull yourself up by those bootstraps. Don’t talk about your challenges. Hide anything negative about your life. Put on a brave face. Mute or conceal your perceived flaws or imperfections. Shall I go on?

Under these societal circumstances, how can we normalize mental health conditions and the need for tenderness, healthy vulnerability, deep human connection? How do we know we aren’t alone if others aren’t talking about it? And if I’m alone in this, then there must be something really wrong with me.

Discussions and de-stigmatizations of depression and anxiety are beginning to create social anchors in our discourse as humans. This is fantastic progress. However, there is work to do to continue the work of discussing substance use disorders (which are considered mental health disorders) as well as “severe and chronic illnesses” like bipolar and schizophrenia. Frank discussion of suicide and acceptance of the experience of feeling suicidal rather than only focusing on prevention is, in my opinion, very needed, because it shows up in so many mental health conditions.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Individuals: For those struggling, know you are not alone. Find a therapist or other mentor you trust. Partner with them to support you to find a life worth living on your terms. For allies or other individual friends, family members, or other supporters, address your own internalized stigma about mental illness. Understand the importance of wrapping around a person who is suffering, and don’t give up on them. Listen, witness, don’t always try to fix it. Focus on small steps and celebrate even the slightest shuffle forward.

Society: Prioritize mental health conditions as part of the human condition and engage in discourse and dialogue. Create media to normalize these experiences. Publish and promote authors and creators who identify themselves as someone with a mental health condition or challenge.

Government: Oh boy, so much to say here. Let’s start with funding mental health programs all over the country and providing care that is both affordable and consistent across racial, gender, and economic lines. There should not be the disparity that exists today.

What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Radical Acceptance: Every day I encounter things I have to radically accept. These might be disappointments, frustrations, or situations I absolutely abhor for myself and anyone else affected. A recent example is that I am working on radically accepting my peri-menopausal hot flashes. I don’t like them, but I can accept that the reality is I’m going to be experiencing them for a while. I can work to mitigate this issue, but I have to accept what is real for me right now.

Yin Yoga: Recently a client of mine told me about Yin Yoga as a practice for those who have experienced trauma. I tried out a YouTube video and I am hooked! Yin Yoga consists of holding each pose for up to five minutes and focusing into letting go into the pose. For many Yin Yoga is a meditative or deeply spiritual practice. I am only beginning my Yin Yoga journey, and I am so grateful to my client for telling me about it. A recent example of my use of Yin Yoga is when I want to take a nap, I allow myself to try Yin Yoga first, as it is such a deep, quiet practice. Usually, I come out energized and balanced and no longer need the nap!

Writing: Writing is my oldest and best friend. There is nothing I have found that so quickly and intensely brings me into myself. A recent example is my rediscovery of pen and paper writing. I grabbed a notebook and pen and sat up in bed just letting my thoughts and energy physically manifest. Amazing.

Human Connection: This one has been hard for so many or impossible during the pandemic. My husband insists on human connection and checks in with me if I’ve been isolating for too long. Today while I was working, he pulled me into the kitchen, made me an omelet, and gave me a hug while reminding me I need to eat.

Stopping for Tea: Okay, this is a super specific suggestion, but when I make myself a cup of tea, I use it as a mindfulness practice. It forces me to sit and wait until the water is cool enough to sip. I breathe the aroma of the tea. I taste it on my tongue. I wrap my hands around the mug to feel the warm ceramic. I watch the steam lazily circle into the air. I can listen to my thoughts, or the birds, or soft music. It’s ten minutes of mindfulness, if I choose to let it be.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

We are here for about 100 years if we are fortunate to die a natural death after a long life. I want to share about my life with others and hear about theirs. We are all interesting and weird and just…ourselves. Take a risk. Take the first step toward your life worth living, and support others to do the same. Practice vulnerability and empathy.

How can our readers follow you online?

FB: @caitlin.billings.1

TW: @cemmabillings

IG: @caitlin.billings

LI: Caitlin Billings, LCSW

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Mental Health Champions: Why & How Caitlin Billings of Sana Therapy Collective Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.