The road to mental health recovery is a long and often arduous process. Often, many face challenges and discrimination, but with the right support system, it can be done. In this episode, Timothy J. Hayes, Psy.D. interviews educator and mental health advocate, Lauren Spiro. Lauren shares her journey towards mental health and the opportunities she has received to help others reach their recovery. She also shares her thoughts on the educational process she helped pioneer – emotional CPR.
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Emotional CPR And Mental Health Recovery With Lauren Spiro
Lauren Spiro has co-founded two nonprofit corporations and Emotional CPR, Emotional-Cpr.org. This is a public health education program that teaches people how to support others through an emotional crisis. She is a blogger on MadInAmerica.com and the first Director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery. She has been featured on National Media and consultant on numerous Federal projects. Her memoir, Living For Two: A Daughter’s Journey From Grief and Madness to Forgiveness and Peace, was published in 2014. This paints a poetic picture of her journey into madness and her pathway home.
Lauren, thank you so much for joining us here. How are you?
Thank you for inviting me. I’m feeling good. I’m excited to be here with you.
I have been looking forward to this for a while since we first talked about it. I hope you will be able to tell us a little bit about how you’ve got into the work you do and what drives your passion for it?
It’s nice to every once in a while think back about, “How did I get into this work?” As a little person, I was born in Washington DC, grew up in the burbs right outside Washington. In a very stable neighborhood, people didn’t move out very often. I was always interested and intrigued by individual differences based on family differences but I didn’t have the words psychologist or social worker in my vocabulary when I was 7 or 10. That came later. When I was fourteen, my father was shot in the head in an act of street violence. I won’t call it random but unplanned, unexpected, shocking. Sixteen days later, having never regained consciousness, he passed.
I mentioned it because a year and a half after that when I was sixteen, some things built up to it but all of a sudden, one evening, I felt something out there that I had never felt before. After 2.5 hours or so, it became God is speaking directly to me. Prior to that, I hadn’t even believed in God based on my life and the trauma I had been through. I thought, “If there’s a God, I’m not interested. Thank you very much.”
I’m sixteen, hormones are happening that major change from young adult to adult. I was in there, which is a time when many people have their first experience with the mental health system. God was talking to me and I sensed a oneness with the universe that was a power to be reckoned with. It was more than I could navigate myself. I was pretty smart and tough but this was overflowing. It was getting late. It was like 11:00 at night. For three hours, I walked around our neighborhood as this powerful force, energy, vibration increased. I went home and saw my mother with her new boyfriend that I had never met before. They were sitting and then I said something about, “I wanted to get in touch with President Nixon to be part of building stronger communities,” something like that and then I went to bed.
The next day she took me directly to a psychiatrist who said, “Go direct. Do not stop at home to the local hospital that had a psych unit.” What began is over the top exciting. It’s a little confusing because I was trying to figure it out, experience to hell to this game that I had to play to get out of being locked up in seclusion and forcibly drugged. It was a nightmare. At the time, it’s called a nervous breakdown but decades later, I learned it was a spiritual emergency. That was when I was sixteen. I’ve got out of the institution at seventeen. I graduated college and went into the Peace Corps, then to graduate school and got a Master’s in Clinical and Community Psychology.
The spiritual emergency reinforced my interest in individual differences and my father’s murder. When he was murdered, I knew there was a reason this was happening but I didn’t know what it was. It was beyond me. I knew that much. All these influences helped me develop compassion and work on forgiveness. The guy that killed him was seventeen. He was 2.5 years older than me. Someone about my age. It’s like wrapping my mind around how can someone learn that that’s okay to do.
That major change from young adult to adult is a time when many people have their first experience with the mental health system.
You’ve got a Master’s?
I went into the mental health field and I hid because when I’ve got discharged from the mental institution, it was a secret that I was labeled chronic schizophrenia, crazy in high school. I went back to a different public high school. The counselor promised he would not reveal my secret. It was something that we didn’t talk about. Nobody talked about it. I didn’t go public with it until many years later and probably in my 30s. I worked in the mental health field in the conventional system, residential case management. Getting my Master’s, I did an internship as mental health therapist. Conventional things but I knew I wasn’t conventional.
I increasingly knew that as my life went on and I learned more. I met other ex-psychiatric inmates who were pretty radical. I’m still in my early 30s, in a senior management position in a nonprofit mental health company. Janet Foner, who at that time for many years was the international leader within the Re-evaluation Counseling community of the Mental Health Liberation. She knew my story a bit. I knew her a bit. I had a lot of respect for her because she had this global following and traveled the world doing workshops. That was her full-time work. She told me at a weekend workshop in a small 7:00 AM group for ex-inmates, as we call ourselves in the RC community, “There was never anything wrong with you.”
I thought that was the craziest and most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. She said, “Say it as you mean it.” It took me years of looking at what are the implications. What if that was possible? I had tried everything else that I knew of. I had been a therapist and in therapy. I tried psych drugs, group therapy and a lot of stuff but something was missing. After a few years of looking at an emotional release work, crying and shaking, it brings up a lot of feelings to think about, “What if there was never anything wrong with me?” Economically, politically, socially and psychologically, people see you this way but maybe it’s an illusion. Maybe it’s not real? I’m trying that on it.
After a few years, I came to know that it was true and the implications are tremendous. That was part of my journey. I’ve got my first ever county job in Arlington County, bordering on Washington DC, the only county in Virginia, as the first recovery advocate and educator. My job became in a county mental health and substance addiction services program. You can imagine very conventional, good people but to help them understand where I was coming from and to be transparent, I felt like I needed to be honest and stop living this lie because I had this lie of omission. I never told people that I had been diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. I wouldn’t get a CEO job. There’s no way.
I came out publicly. It might have been in my 40s. In any case, it was a political step but I needed a certain amount of confidence so then I could deal with the discrimination head-on but that was my job. I was paid to do that. It was a great job and I loved it. I was like this with the CEO. That was the title for the person at the head of the system. Her brother had been killed by the system. He had mental health, addiction problem and died young so she understood it in a way that other people didn’t. That was very gratifying.
From there, I made a huge leap. I spent at least two months deciding if I would even apply for this next job. I was asked to apply for it and it felt ten levels above where I was. I did a lot of looking inside, shaking and crying. I was afraid of the job and I couldn’t do it. It was the Director of Public Policy for the National Coalition For Mental Health Recovery, which was just starting. I remember when Dan called and said, “I want you to apply for it. I’m not asking anyone else.” I don’t know if I have ever said that publicly, “It feels good to hear that. I have never heard anyone say, ‘I believe in you,’ but what that has taught me at the moment is that I need to believe in myself.” That was a huge step up and it took a lot of work for me internally.
Is it the next step after accepting that there was never anything wrong with you?
Most of the communication isn’t even done with words. It’s really feeling someone’s presence.
It’s 20/20 hindsight. This is stumbling over myself to find myself, which I had to do. I did convince him to open the search up nationally. I said, “You need to find the best person for the job and that might not be me.” I remember, one day, I was doing co-counseling on the phone with this woman I hadn’t co-counseled with about the job. I said, “I have been working on this, shaking and crying because I was scared. Me, seriously? Do you think I can do that? I don’t know.” It contradicted everything I had ever been taught for almost 50 years of my life prior to that.
I was 50 when I started that job. I was talking to her on the phone and I said, “As I’m telling you about this, I feel like there’s more space in my brain.” She said, “I’m not surprised because there is.” I speak for myself except I know thousands of people that practice this regularly. The emotion is the frozen trauma that I’m digesting, integrating and letting go of. When I release the emotion, there’s more space in my head to think more intelligently, clearly and be more creative. I took the job as part of the process and it was a big job.
One of my big tasks was going on Capitol Hill and educating the policymakers, legislators and their staff about the needs of we called it consumer survivors because it was the first time in the United States that an organization had brought together consumers on one end of the continuum who tend to think they have a mental illness. Survivors who say, “We don’t have the problem. It’s our culture.” It was the first time we brought together these two groups. I navigated the fine line and we had national priorities so I’ve got funding. It was a great job but stressful. I learned to believe in myself and about the political system too. They listen and it’s our job to speak. If you speak for yourself, that’s one thing but if you are speaking for 100,000 people, that’s another thing. That was an exciting time. I never imagined that I would work on Capitol Hill.
How long were you in that position?
I became Director of the Coalition soon after that. That was seven years and I had wanted to step down but finally, someone was ready to step up and I said, “Please.” I was the Associate Director for that year. As I oriented the other person who did national elections for our regions around the country, I stepped down from that and moved to Florida, which is what I had wanted to do for quite a while. What I wanted to share with you was after about 1 or 2 years of working in the National Coalition, 1 or 2 days, it became very clear to me. It was like the clouds parted. I saw what was needed in terms of emotional CPR. I didn’t have the name at the time. That took a few more days but what I saw was it’s not complicated to help someone through an emotional crisis and having been on both sides of it.
I had one side as a provider, another side as a user in the system. I had some ideas about how we could teach people, how to help others and support others through an emotional crisis or emotional distress. My Cofounder and I created Emotional CPR pretty quickly because we both had the same vision at the same time. It was this beautiful synchronicity and we piloted it for two years. In 2010 we started doing a two-day certification training. I put all my best thinking into that. I worked together with Dan Fisher, a consumer psychiatrist, to create something useful. We continue to spread that around the US and the world. A lot of it is about listening.
We ended up calling it Emotional CPR. C is about Connecting, which is mostly deep listening. I’m now using myself as an example. When I was in the seclusion room or locked up, I felt very disconnected. My head was cut off from my body and wasn’t connected to other people. When I felt like someone was listening to me, there was a mind there who was listening, which means validating and respecting me, then I began to feel and remember I had power like, “I have been in tough straits before and I made it out.” The power came back. Once we feel and remember we have power and agency that we start to feel revitalized. Vital is life and the chi energy starts to flow again.
In our training, revitalization is about aligning your life so that it’s more consistent with your dreams, vision and values. Changing a job, ending a relationship, whatever it means, there is a simple concept. One morning, I’m excited I confirmed the date of ECPR training in South Asia and Africa. It will probably be the biggest training we have ever done. I told them they could take up to 40 people. I have a team of five very experienced trainers and then we will have probably four apprentices from South Asia and Africa who want to become trainers. This work continues to grow and I continue to deepen it. It’s taught me a lot about listening to myself and others. I feel like I have been talking. I’m going to take a breath and let you make a comment or ask a question if you would like.
Trauma is when we are overwhelmed. We can’t process it all. We can’t digest it. So it gets frozen. It gets stuck and it gets fragmented.
I’m not sure I can add anything of value. The thing that strikes me as you are saying this is that you are one of the many people who have been able to turn some of their deepest pain into some of their biggest blessings and in that process, bless others as well. It’s a thrill to be able to know some of that because it’s one of the ways that people create meaning in their lives. It’s certainly not the only way we create meaning but for some people, it is one of the more productive things to do. I think the guy’s name is Greg Moors, who used to do a heart virtue. He would say, “Take the thing. That’s the worst of the worst thing that’s happened to you and start talking about it. When you hit the one where you can’t sit in your seat, your butts burst with this anger, ‘No one should have this.’ That’s the one you want to pick on and you want to create a life purpose based on helping others recover from that or preventing others from having that happen in their life.” That’s what I put to mind, that you are giving us a living example of having done that. How long ago did you start Emotional CPR?
We piloted it for two years and did some workshops around the country. The CPR started with recovery and people were like, “Recovery from what?” In doing these workshops, we’ve got the feedback that revitalization would be a more fitting term. In 2010, we began doing certification training in person. Now we do it mostly on the Zoom but some countries have opened up and we have been able to do it in person again.
How long is the training? What’s the format and duration of the training?
It’s two full days. Basically, fourteen hours with breaks. I returned from India in mid-March 2020. We’ve got a chunk of money from the Federal Government to put it on a Zoom Platform. They put it in a twelve-hour training. I tend to do it fourteen hours because it’s easier to cut back than add hours. It’s done usually over 3 or 4 sessions. It’s up to the training team how they want to divide it up. With law enforcement, it’s in smaller two-hour segments. It varies. Now we are doing it in high schools. It’s flexible enough. There are many segments, the C, P and R.
What we do that might be pretty unique is what we call real plays. All of our trainers think that you can’t support someone through an emotional crisis unless you practice it. In the training, everyone gets an opportunity, at least once. They used to get a few opportunities to play the role. I’m hesitant to use that term but to be the person in distress and be supported by another participant in the training. We let them experience it because it’s something that you need to feel in your body. To listen deeply, you need to have to get out of your head, heart and body, to feel what the other person is saying, to feel beyond the words because most of the communication probably isn’t even done with words. It’s feeling someone’s presence.
This is available now in various formats, whether it’s live training or on Zoom. It’s going into high schools and different countries.
It has been translated into well over six languages. Veterinarians have scooped it up and are using it a lot. Apparently, they deal with a lot of pain. Who would have guessed? Veterinarians.
It sounds like a fabulous program. I’m excited to learn more about it myself. If I remember correctly, your work has taken another level. I knew now you are into trauma-informed leadership and I’m anxious to hear you talk about that and how you’ve got into that.
Leadership today is being about the integration of thinking well and sensing.
Life is very exciting, isn’t it? It can be if we make it that way. Just to close on Emotional CPR, the website is Emotional-Cpr.org but if you put Emotional CPR, it will come up. There are a lot of free resources on that. Thank you for asking me. I’m partly inspired by my developing, and then training ECPR for years now in a few different countries, mostly across the United States. In addition to trauma healing, which has been one of my favorite topics for many years, leadership has also been one of my favorite topics, trauma-informed leadership is my newest favorite topic.
This is my learning. I’m seeing and understanding leadership nowadays as being about the integration of thinking well and sensing. We’ve got to listen deeply. Americans, we are so stuck in our heads, including me. I have to learn to breathe and go more deeply. It’s more of an Eastern thing, not doing so much as being. Emotional CPR involves very deep listening and taking the time creating space to listen, feel, have that dialogue that exchanges, not in a hurry because these things take time. I’m a student of Thomas Hübl. My understanding from him is the basis of this type of leadership is about, “I feel you feeling me.” That helps me get out of my head.
The other thing that’s interesting about this and I think it’s on that leading edge is to think of leadership as not so much as a role but rather, the thinking and the sensing that moves through us or me. If I’m a CEO, I don’t get caught up in the role if someone asks me something to make a decision and I don’t know if I’m stuck in the role. I feel like I should know but if I’m allowing presence, sensing and movement to flow, then I know that I need to contact the right person, ask the right question and that, the next elegant step or solution will appear. It’s letting the future emerge through us. It’s a cooperative leadership approach so I love that.
I have a long way to go but that involves making space, being aware of my body and regulating myself. It’s sensing the alignment of my mind or my head with my heart and body, and then co-regulating with other people. If someone is up there, we do this in Emotional CPR. If someone is very hyper and up there, down and depressed or sad, it’s being able to either slow someone down. We don’t slow someone down but we invite that co-regulation, that’s slowing down to meet me where I am or if someone is very withdrawn or sad to lift their energy because of the dynamics of this relationship in this space where you feel that respect, validation and that caring. It’s a very different model of trauma-informed leadership.
I absolutely have an idea of informed leadership and I’m missing in my mind the connection of trauma-informed leadership.
Where it gets difficult is we are leading whatever the role is. I run into these difficulties where I get triggered, restimulated or whatever you want to call it. I stopped listening because it’s like, “What?” That’s where the trauma is often in me. What is trauma? Trauma is when there has been an overwhelm and we can’t process it all. We can’t digest it so it gets frozen. It gets stuck and fragmented. It’s not digested and integrated into my identity. I don’t fully understand it. It’s on the side here. It comes up and bites us in the butt sometimes. That is where I recognize if I’m being restimulated or triggered, there’s some trauma there, an old hurt or humiliation, whatever your words are, we would have different words that I get to work on. It’s the invitation to say, “Thank you for the reminder. I will work on that later because now I’m in a meeting and I need to do my thing.”
The trauma-informed leadership piece is recognizing it. That’s the first big step. It’s like, “I think I know what she’s talking about.” Working on it and digesting it, making the time, space and maybe having a conversation with a loved one or a friend saying, “Help me out here. You have seen my anger. I’m trying to figure out what’s underneath it.” Fear? Often fear is under the rage. Maybe you have to work on the rage, then get to the fear, fear of what and then it’s old. Working on digesting and integrating it so I’m no longer hooked. One way I measure my liberation is I don’t get as hooked.
If someone says something, “I’m hooked but not as hooked,” I was like, “Okay.” For me, it’s taking years. I want my complete liberation. What will that look like? Will I feel like the Dalai Lama? I don’t know. One morning, I met with somebody and she told me a story. I said, “I might share that in this interview I’m doing.” It’s very short. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa and the Dalai Lama was coming to speak to their organization or group. It was about 200 people in the room. She was busy. He was about a kilometer away. He was on his way there.
All of a sudden, she felt calm. She felt this peacefulness. He arrives and talks for I’m not sure how long. There’s the hush in the room. Everybody is feeling this incredible quiet peacefulness. She said he didn’t even speak whatever language. He spoke to the translator. 10 or 20 minutes after he left, the energy that he brought with him dissipated. It was so remarkable but I believe it. Some people are at this level of bliss or deep connection with the Earth. When I was having my spiritual emergency, it’s like this deep connection.
There’s a reason we have the C and the CPR. Connection in deeper levels.
I remember, once I went to hear Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was doing his book tour and he was in DC. About 900 people sold out. The charisma of this man, who was on the front lines of so many wars and disasters around the world and he helped to still the fire, there’s a tremendous amount of charisma and peace. I met him afterwards in a book signing thing. I handed him a little ECPR mini brochure and he looked at me right in the eye. I will never forget it as long as I live. He had dark brown eyes and said, “We are in the same line of work.” I’m speechless. He said, “We are peacemakers.” I said, “Yes.” That got me thinking a lot about Emotional CPR as a tool and process of peacemaking, which it is. Thank you, Kofi.
Are there practices, tools or specifics that you use for the trauma resolution in your trauma-informed leadership once you recognize that, “This part of me is off to the side and it got activated? It’s pulling me off center off to the side?” I realize when I’m supposed to be connecting with you and listening deeply, I’ve got sidelined. I make a footnote about it here. I go on and finish the interaction with you. Do you have a set of tools, processes or skills that you teach for moving through that trauma in your trauma-informed leadership?
Two things. One is back to Emotional CPR. It is trauma-informed. When people do the real plays, everyone does them and the trainers demonstrate, we take a pause and share what resonated with us. The way Lauren looked at the person in distress, good eye contact, she had her eyes at the same level and things that helped make that connection. We get the feedback. This is a pretty intensive learning tool but when people are doing the real play, they are invited to bring up an unresolved trauma in their lives and there are often tears. We create a safe space so people take risks to show themselves in ways that they might not do in other settings.
The trauma healing goes on during the real play but it goes on for the whole group. By the end of the training, the last half or a quarter of it, there’s a different level of feeling trust and safety in the entire group. That happens all the time in the training. I’m a student of Thomas Hübl so I will bring more into Emotional CPR with my new learning. Some of the resources that we have are, one is creating space. We need to make it enough of a priority that we create some space to feel this, look at it, feel another person feeling me, practice this deep listening so we can get into the body and digest the trauma.
It’s the space. It’s learning how to regulate learning, how to notice when my mind is going 50 miles an hour, my heart is pretty calm and my body has an acre in there. It’s like, “I’m not so regulated,” and there’s no judgment here. It’s just noticing. The more I practice noticing, the more I get aligned. I get regulated that my mind calms down. We do this in a group every week. I started a group. We all calm down with hearts open. It’s amazing. It’s that regulating and then learning how to co-regulate with someone else.
If somebody is angry, anxious or whatever it is to give them some good attention, we might do this at work, with a friend, with the homeless person under the bridge or on the bus. You can do it anywhere. That deep listening is transformative because we don’t often do that in our culture. We are busy thinking about in 1 or 5 minutes, next week or tomorrow because we are so focused on productivity. Another symptom of trauma is how fast we move. I like that language, too. It’s like helping people recognize the trauma symptoms. When we go numb, feel frozen or stuck, it’s another symptom of trauma that hasn’t healed.
Is it the inability to accept help or ask for it?
Yes. We create space, regulation and co-regulation. I don’t know if the movement would be some of it. It is a package and this is my learning edge. I’m learning about this and practicing. We learn and practice it. It’s part of the classes. I’m telling you, my world looks and feels very different. I do a lot of yoga and that helps me feel my body because most of my life, I felt pretty numb. I am extraordinarily healthy so I haven’t needed to focus on my body. As I eat a more plant-based diet, it helped me feel my body more but I have a long way to go, breathing, feeling deeply and lots of yoga.
If you think about it, is there an aspect of either your story, the work you are doing, Emotional CPR or trauma-informed leadership that we haven’t even asked you about yet that you want to make sure you get in here? I know that you wrote a book, Living For Two and that was something I wanted to make sure we mentioned that.
I did write a book and I wrote it in my 47th year. My father died in his 47th year but it was in editing for ten years. It’s Living For Two: A Daughter’s Journey From Grief and Madness to Forgiveness and Peace. It’s my memoir. It’s a love story. Living For Two is that living for my father and me. Feeling that deep connection and feel like he’s around all the time. When I tune into it, I can feel it more. The only thing I haven’t said is I’m learning more about how we create our reality. Part of deep listening is letting the future emerge through us, through a group, whatever the group is, a corporation, social group and that is a beautiful thing.
It’s a delight for me personally to find out about Emotional CPR. I look forward to following your work as you express and expand this trauma-informed leadership. I’m grateful that you are willing to share with the Journey’s Dream community your story. It’s going to fit so well with many other interviews we have done where people who have been through their own mental health challenges and come out with realizing a transformation in their lives. Thank you so much for sharing your story. When you get a book written about trauma-informed leadership, we will have you back over if you are halfway there.
One book was enough but thank you so much, Dr. Tim. It has been a real pleasure to be with you.
It’s an honor and I look forward to our next contact.
Thank you so much.
Lauren Spiro has co-founded two nonprofit corporations and Emotional CPR, Emotional-Cpr.org. This is a public health education program that teaches people how to support others through an emotional crisis. She is a blogger on MadInAmerica.com and the first Director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery. She has been featured on National Media and consultant on numerous Federal projects. Her memoir, Living For Two: A Daughter’s Journey From Grief and Madness to Forgiveness and Peace was published in 2014. This paints a poetic picture of her journey into madness and her pathway home.
She is a multimedia artist, a many-year practitioner of yoga and meditation. Her vision of social justice and mental health liberation focuses on developing our capacity for feeling deeply connected for appreciating the vast creative intelligence of the human heart, mind and inspiring compassionate action. Her life’s mission is to embody inner peace to co-create global peace thus she curates transformative learning experiences. She has a Master’s in Clinical and Community Psychology. For more information, you can find her at LaurenSpiro.com.
- Lauren Spiro
- Living For Two: A Daughter’s Journey From Grief and Madness to Forgiveness and Peace
- Janet Foner
- Thomas Hübl
About Lauren Spiro
Lauren Spiro has co-founded two non-profit corporations and Emotional CPR, a public health education program that teaches people how to support others through an emotional crisis. She is a blogger on Mad in America, and the first Director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery. She and has been featured on national media, and consulted on numerous federal projects.
Her memoir, Living for Two: A Daughter’s Journey from Grief and Madness to Forgiveness and Peace was published in 2014 and paints a poetic picture of her journey into madness and her pathway home. She is a multi-media artist, a 20+ year practitioner of yoga and meditation. Lauren’s vision of social justice and mental health liberation focuses on developing our capacity for feeling deeply connected, appreciating the vast creative intelligence of the human heart and mind, and inspiring compassionate action.
Her life’s mission is to embody inner peace to co-create global peace, thus she curates transformative learning experiences. She has an M.A. in clinical/community psychology. For more information see www.Laurenspiro.com.
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