Carolyn Jackson is a wise woman. I’ve had the privilege of watching her blossom over the many years we’ve been friends. Blossom is not totally the right word--I wouldn’t compare Carolyn to a flower. Carolyn is not fragile and doesn’t wilt in the humidity. She’s tough, doesn’t need pampering and is thick-skinned. Carolyn has dug deep—super soul-scraping deep--over the years I have known her. Her insights and wisdom continually blow me away. Our conversations make me question how I think about myself and how I’ve been programmed throughout my whole life by culture, family, traditions and stereotypes. I’m beyond grateful to have Carolyn in my life. She is not only a dear friend and confidante but also an inspiring woman who I deeply respect and admire.
I photographed Carolyn in her office, and her interview follows:
As a social worker with college students, your role is so important in the community. I know you encounter students dealing with all kinds of situations and issues. How has your working life informed or changed your ideas, thoughts and opinions on feminism? Could you share a little bit about your life journey and what brought you to where you are now?
I’m a mental health counselor at MTSU. I’ve been working here for two years. I’m the least art-y person you have interviewed for this blog, so thank you for this opportunity! I do not paint, make music, take photos, dance, sing, or make my own beauty products, but I love people who do. I help people. I really think that’s what I do best- I’m a helper.
I’ve been living in Tennessee for seven years now. I moved here because my husband got a job at MTSU. He’s a professor in the English department, and we have one daughter.
I’m 35, so whittling down my life’s journey is going to be hard--so many years!
I grew up in a home where there was a significant amount of dysfunction and neglect. I had the basics--food, clothing, shelter, etc…but I really lacked a grown up in my life that I could really count on. I didn’t have a person that loved and accepted me unconditionally. That was so much more detrimental than I ever realized until I committed to therapy.
I spent my late teens and early twenties on a metaphorical runaway train. I was unwittingly letting my parents or current boyfriend control my choices. Everything I did, I did for the love and approval of one or all of them. I didn’t know who I was, what I wanted, or what to do with myself. I did a lot of very destructive, immature, and reckless things with my life and my body because I just had no fucking idea who to turn to or where to turn.
I met my husband after being on the runaway train for about eight years. I was 24 when I met him. I was working in mental health as a case manager, and I was also in graduate school working on my Master of Social Work (MSW). I was feeling pretty confident at this time in my life. My husband was nurturing and kind. For the first time in my life, I felt loved and accepted unconditionally.
Going into my relationship, I believed that at the age of 24 I really knew my shit. I was an adult, and I was adult-ing like a champion. I knew everything for sure. I believed I had worked through all of my family of origin issues. I believed I was ready for my first, real grown-up relationship and all that went with it.
HA! It wasn’t until the age of 34 that I was really ready to surrender to the fact that I needed help, and that it was ok to ask for help. I didn’t know everything, and I certainly didn’t know how to fix my problems all alone. One month after my 34th birthday I started therapy.
Here is what I learned:
At the same time I started therapy, I came across a book called Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward. Yikes! Every time I read the title it evokes pictures of bubbling cauldrons with, like, evil witch parents cooking up a poison. Despite the title, it’s a really practical and helpful book.
In the book, I learned about unspoken beliefs. They are ideas that become ingrained in you, your brain, your heart, and your life. They stem from the way you are treated by your parents or whoever took care of you at home. They stem from things that are said and unsaid. They come from both neglect and/or abuse.
Here are a few of mine:
If I ask for help I won’t get it.
I am not important.
I don’t deserve happiness or respect.
I don’t matter.
I am not my own person.
Through therapy and self-help books I learned: I’m my own woman, and I matter. I deserve to have a voice, and I deserve respect when I talk. My contribution is important. I am not willing to apologize for who I am. I am not willing to apologize for things that aren’t my fault. I’m willing to hold myself accountable when I do hurt someone’s feelings. I’m enough. I have a right to stand up for myself. I believe in myself and in all of this, all the way down to my bones now.
I also learned about emotional blackmail. It is a form of manipulation in which people close to us use fear, obligation, and/or guilt to get us to do what they want. Their needs are the only needs being considered, and it can leave the person being manipulated feeling empty, sad, and confused. I learned that emotional abuse can come in many forms, and that most of them don’t involve yelling.
Today, I feel whole, genuine, good, and happy in a way I’ve never felt before. I feel capable of asking for help when I need it, and I’ve learned who I can safely turn to for that help.
Could you describe a time when you had to take a leap of faith and jump over the cliff?
I took a leap of faith when I trusted my therapist with my feelings and believed in her process. When my daughter was an infant, I had difficulty in my personal life. I didn’t feel seen, heard, or understood by those closest to me. I began losing my patience with my daughter because of the stress and tension I was feeling from the other adults in my life. I really didn’t like the way I was treating her at all. Then I just started feeling downright crazy, so I began seeing a therapist.
I’d been to four therapists in the past, and the truth is that none of them really understood me either. Some of them had good insights, and others didn’t at all. My therapist Linda really understood me and I will never forget her.
I almost stopped going after the second time I saw her because it was getting a little too real for me. After only seeing her twice I also felt “better” and was ready to quit. However, I didn’t quit because I promised myself I would face all the shit that I was pretending didn’t exist. I was willing to commit to therapy because I believed my daughter deserved the best life possible. Through therapy I learned I did too.
I have to say that becoming a parent and committing to therapy have helped me the most with regard to how I help others. I’m an LCSW, and most of my students are 18-22 though some are older. I’ve learned how to really listen to someone’s story. I’ve learned that just because a person is old enough to vote it doesn’t make them a grown up. These students still need their parents or whoever takes care of them at home, but in a different way than when they were little.
Mostly, they really need emotional support and someone to guide them into adulthood. I believe being responsible for yourself entirely (a.k.a. “adult-ing) is an idea that grows with time. It’s a skill that needs to be practiced. The other day I read an inspirational quote on Instagram “Be who you needed when you were younger.” That’s who I really hope to be to these students--a guide into adulthood that can help them answer the really big, difficult, and messy questions life asks us.
I also want to help them “connect the dots” between the chaos and dysfunction they were raised in, and the difficulties they experience in their personal lives currently. That is what Linda did for me and it felt like an actual, palpable fog was lifted from my eyes. I had an entirely different perspective on my whole life (especially my childhood) after meeting with her.
What is your favorite creative space/environment like?
My office at work. It’s quiet, private, and I can focus on whatever I want in my free time.
What books are you currently reading?
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
DBT Skills Training by Marsha Linehan (my newest toy!)
Potty Training for Dummies
What's your go to musical selection?
I used to like making mix tapes, because I’m old! Ha! Now I like to make playlists, so I’ve been listening to Killer Mike, Taylor Swift, Paul Simon, Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, Sleigh Bells, Hozier, Nirvana, and lots of musical scores-mostly Rent and Sweeny Todd.
You seem so healthy and well-balanced, physically and emotionally. Do you have any tips for staying that way?
The older I get the more comfortable I have become with standing up for what I know I need. That would be my main tip: Step 1: Figure out what you need. Step 2: Just do it (like the Nike slogan). I used to feel guilty or apologize for taking care of myself. I’m not willing to do that anymore. Self-care can come in many forms, and it helps keep my mind balanced.
I need a fair amount of solitude, and I take it when I need it now. Being alone --doing anything or nothing-- helps give me back the energy I need to spend time with family and friends.
I used to worry a lot about my appearance and weight. I actually downright hated myself for a long time--mostly during my late teens and early twenties. I stopped doing that almost entirely when I got pregnant with my daughter. I started to realize that my body was important for more than just being pretty on the outside, so I just eat what I’m hungry for now. However, I still feel insecure sometimes. One of my mottos/mantras is: “remember what your body can do”. It reminds me that I’m important and valuable for more than how much I weigh or what I look like. I exercise when I feel like it which is almost never. Ironically, I’ve never been healthier, thinner, or more confident.
After I had my daughter people would tell me she looked like a “baby doll”. I knew they were just complimenting her and that they didn’t mean anything negative by it, but for some reason I felt offended anytime someone said that to me.
I thought about it, and it occurred to me that baby dolls are plastic, hollow objects that just look pretty on the outside. They can’t talk, so they don’t have feelings, opinions, wants or needs. THAT is why I was offended by a common compliment given to baby girls. She is a person who very much has feelings, opinions, wants, and needs. She is not empty or hollow on the inside and just pretty on the outside. She has substance. After thinking about all of this with regard to her, it occurred to me that I do too. Being a parent can be hectic, but my daughter inspires me to stay emotionally and physically well balanced more than anyone. She inspires me to think about everything from an entirely different perspective.
Womanhood took on a whole new meaning to me once I became a mom. I think sexism is still a large part of our culture, and I want to do as much as I can to help my daughter and other young women understand that they are important. I want to figure out a way to entirely debunk every ridiculous idea that is insidiously ingrained in young girls’ minds. From baby dolls and Disney to rape culture on college campuses and everything in between. I’m working on how to start that revolution!
Do you have any mottos or mantras?
Yes, I have oodles. Which one I say to myself depends on the day and/or situation.
Here are a few:
I have agency.
I am important and I matter.
I love you.
One day at a time.
I am capable and I am brave.
I always have a choice.
I will know the truth by the way it feels.
I am enough.
Remember what your body can do.
The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.
I am responsible for my happiness and mood, not yours.
Mermaid or Forest Fairy?
Mermaid! For sure, all day! However, if I could choose to turn into anyone other than myself it would be Wolverine from X-men. So, Wolverine first, but Mermaid for the purposes of respectfully answering the question.
Kilim or Toile?
Toile, because I think it’s French.
Spoons and bowls or forks and plates?
Spoons and bowls. We love mac and cheese, cereal and milk, and this summer I’ve made cherry cobbler with French vanilla ice cream about three times. :)