“In all honesty I am still feeling a little vulnerable”: A conversation worth sharing

Kristi Urry & Kathryn McGuigan, January 2020

Kristi Urry (University of Adelaide) and Kathryn McGuigan (Massey University) reflect on contributing to the Illness Snapshots Symposium at ISCHP 2019

Image from Kathryn’s photo essay ‘Scared to eat’

Ahead of the recent ISCHP conference in Bratislava, Kerry Chamberlain put out a call for contributions to a Snapshots symposium. His challenge, as usual, was for presenters to forgo the traditional 15-minute talk and, instead, present short, sharp and interesting arts-based presentations on issues of health and illness. We both took on this challenge, using it as an opportunity to reflect on and share important personal stories beyond the usual confines of presenting our research as polished, neatly defined scholars. The symposium went well, inspiring a lot of questions and discussion. Contributing to this symposium was also emotionally challenging and, afterwards, we both checked in with each other and reflected on how we felt after our presentations. We came to recognise this conversation, which we continued via email after the conference closed, as both a deeply caring act and a reflexive practice. We felt that it was a conversation worth sharing.

I [Kathryn] talked about my daughter’s journey with ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), anxiety and autism through a photo essay. For me, this presentation was about giving a voice to my daughter, myself and my family but in a safe and ethical way. I am a mother and a critical health psychologist, and most of the time I try and keep these two positions separate. The symposium allowed me to be both, but I am left with emotion – doubt, pride, sadness and a little anger – and I wonder why.

I [Kristi] performed a poem that I had written previously as a tool to process my experiences and those of my family in supporting a family member during their experience of acute mental distress and our subsequent contact with the public mental health system. Taking the position of both family advocate and a researcher whose work critically explores issues within mental health care, this writing was also a way for me to navigate and express my frustration with the professional ‘care’ I witnessed. These experiences disrupted my research, challenging the way that I ask questions and make assumptions within my work.

Below, we share our ongoing conversation as we reflect and wonder together about how our ‘professional’ and ‘personal’ lives are not as distinct as we sometimes imagine or present them to be; why we felt vulnerable in sharing stories that demonstrate the permeability of this boundary; and why we had chosen to do so anyway.

Hi Kathryn, It was lovely to meet you and spend some time talking at ISCHP last week. I just wanted to follow-up regarding the Snapshots symposium. We chatted the afternoon on the same day about how we were both feeling quite vulnerable following the symposium, and you felt unsure about having shared. After I had the chance to get some rest, I felt much more settled in my choice to have shared (it was such a tiring experience, but in a good way). I wondered if you’ve had a similar experience, or if you still feel uneasy. Kristi

Hi Kristi, Lovely to hear you and thank you for checking in. I am glad you are feeling OK about sharing. It was a powerful session. In all honesty I am still feeling a little vulnerable about the talk. I am not sure if it is because we are in therapy currently with my daughter and there is certainly no end in sight for us in terms of supporting her. But in saying that I don’t regret doing the talk, if that makes sense. I have been silent a long time to protect my daughter, myself and my family but I think it is time to not be silent and to move to activism. — Kathryn

Hi Kathryn, Great to hear from you. And, of course – I enjoyed talking with you, and I think the conversation we started is an important one.        Yes, it was a really powerful session. The way you describe your feelings makes me wonder if we need to expand what we mean by vulnerable here – or, if I do. This word usually conveys (to me) an idea of feeling exposed, possibly in a way that is tricky to deal with or that we might not like. I did feel vulnerable, as in exposed, but I also felt (and feel) sort of empowered by it – vulnerability as a kind strength in itself, even if there’s discomfort there too. I wonder if that’s how you feel too, given your wondering as to whether it’s time to move away from silence?    […] I think that some of my feeling of being exposed following the session was due to having invited others to see how I do this work of family advocate. I don’t do it perfectly, and that’s a tension for me given what I research (and it’s where these experiences impact and challenge the way that I do my research most directly)! Because of this, I do feel a sense of concern about performing my advocacy publicly, although I can control the boundaries of that performance and sharing. Does that also speak to how you’re feeling, too? Kristi

Hi Kristi, I have also been thinking about vulnerability and giving a voice or breaking the silence and wonder about the discourses around these terms. Hoping they don’t shut more doors than they open. I am really enjoying the conversation! — Kathryn

(the email conversation then shifts to scheduling conversations via Skype and creating Google documents, where we have continued to explore these themes)

We both chose to share these stories as an act of giving voice to our families’ (and our own) experiences; but these are also our stories as researchers. These stories sit in tension with our work as scholars and critical health psychologists, raising important questions that we have only started to reflect on. We are asking ourselves and one another questions like the ones we’ve set out below. We are being challenged by these questions. We invite you to be challenged, too.

  • How do our personal experiences inform our research? And, equally, how does our research shape the way that we experience and respond to events in our personal lives?
  • How much of yourself should you put into research; what is safe? How can I expect my participants to expose themselves (to me) if I am not prepared also to do so?
  • How do we decide whether or not to reflect deeply on this, and whether or not to share those reflections with our colleagues?
  • Do we really want to work in areas that are, in many ways, deeply personal? What are the consequences for ourselves, our families and our research?
  • How do we navigate these tensions, either alone or in conversation with the critical community? Where do we stop?
  • How do we care for ourselves and others in academia and in these spaces?

This is a two-part blog. In the second post, we invite our fellow symposium presenters to reflect on their experience of sharing arts-based presentations and the questions we’ve posed.

About the authors

Kristi Urry is a PhD candidate in the School of Psychology at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Her thesis explores mental health clinicians’ perceptions and accounts of sexuality and sexual health in mental health settings. In this work, Kristi uses qualitative methods and draws on theory from critical (health) psychology, sociology and related disciplines. She is particularly interested in how and why we – collectively and as individual researchers – produce particular knowledges, and to what end.

Kathryn McGuigan is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand. She teaches social and health psychology and research methods. Her interests include health and illness in place and space, community pharmacies, medications, food (particularly the struggle to eat), and gendered health issues. Kathryn draws on qualitative methodologies and is particularly interested in exploring arts based practices.

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