S4 E5: Havi Kang on Domestic Violence Recovery (Part 1 of 2)

Released October 19, 2021

One in four women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to the National Intimate Partner Sexual Violence Survey. In this special two-part episode for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we speak with Willow House Clinical Director Havi Kang as she shares how domestic abuse not only includes violence but, unfortunately, so much more.   

Podcast Transcript

So, a lot of women are coming in, they just almost look like they don’t know what’s going on. They’re very quiet. They might be very timid. They might be not very eager to speak up because they don’t know what’s going to happen if they do speak up, even if it’s the team that they trust. That’s another big piece, too, is developing that trust with the patients from the get-go. When they come in, we have to provide an environment that feels safe for them. I know that my team does a really good job of that. 

Welcome to Beyond Theory, a podcast powered by Meadows Behavioral Healthcare that brings you in-depth conversations with firsthand insights from the front lines of mental health and addiction recovery. I’m Dominic Lawson. 

One in four women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to the National Intimate Partner Sexual Violence Survey. In this special two-part episode for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we speak with Willow House Clinical Director Havi Kang as she shares how domestic abuse not only includes violence but, unfortunately, so much more.   

Let’s get out of the abstract and see how this applies in the real world. It’s time to go Beyond Theory. 

Havi Kang: I’m Havi Kang, clinical director at the Willow House at the Meadows

Dominic: Havi, thank you so much for coming on to the Beyond Theory podcast. If you would, just share your background. 

Havi Kang: Sure. Originally, I’m from England. I was born and raised there and moved to the US in 2000, which was interesting. It was a culture shock, for sure, coming from England to America, and this was right before 9/11 had occurred as well. So, that was an interesting experience, coming to a new country and just experiencing a lot of trauma myself around that. It was quite the experience. I’ve been here for a long time now. I’ve been in Arizona the whole time. Initially, I did not like it here. I just didn’t, but I’ve grown to love Arizona very much. Just going through my own stuff and wanted to go to school. I’m Indian, I’m from India. 

Having an education is highly valued, and so I knew I wanted to do some work with people. I didn’t know in what capacity, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I took a few things here and there. I took a lot of different classes in college to narrow down what I wanted to do, and psychology seems the one that was calling out to me a lot, and I just was really good at it. I’m not good with numbers. I’m not science at all or simple arithmetic. It’s just not good for me. It makes me anxious. But I know how to talk to people, and I do that really well. I love to support people. I did my undergraduate in psychology and sociology then I did my graduate degree in mental health and clinical counseling. 

I did an internship at an eating disorder facility to begin with. During that time, I was also doing a yoga teacher training program. That’s also another passion of mine. I’ve been doing yoga since college. I think that is really what set me on this journey to begin with, really getting in touch with spirituality and just myself, my own emotions, my body and how I was not listening to myself, listening to my body and my emotions and the trauma that I had been through. So, that was quite the experience to go through. It was an eight-month teacher training program and that really just opened up a lot of doors for me in being able to support other people, too. 

I was doing that simultaneously, doing my internship and doing this eating disorder facility as well. I was helping set up their IOP, their intensive outpatient program, but it was such a small place and there weren’t very many clients. As a new therapist, I was hungry. I was hungry to help, but there wasn’t anyone in the program. There was only one patient in the program, and it was great. I was able to really help her, but I wanted more. The Meadows had been a place that I had known since undergrad school because I was here at NAU, Northern Arizona University. I knew about The Meadows from a long time ago. I just always felt like maybe I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t strong enough of a clinician just yet.  

Luckily, I’d known some people in the field at that point who had encouraged me to apply. So, I began at The Meadows at the Claudia Black Young Adult Center. I loved it there. I still do. I was the primary therapist there for three years, I want to say and then I transitioned from that into the trauma therapist. I’ve got some more trauma training. I got EMDR trained. I’ve got, I’m still in the middle of Somatic Experiencing training. The Meadows Model, the PIT model, I was trained in that and we have such a good trauma services department. So, getting support from everyone that’s in that department was really crucial during that time for me, and I think it really deepened my clinical skills during being a trauma therapist. 

From there, I never really wanted to be a clinical director, to be completely honest. People had told me, “Havi, you’ll be a great clinical director.” I want to work with patients. I want to be doing that face-to-face stuff. I just felt like it was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss, and I’ve actually loved it so far. I’ve been at Willow House since November 2020, so just shy of a year, but I’m pretty settled in now, and I really enjoy working with the women there. They’re very acute women, coming in with a lot of significant trauma, sexual trauma specifically, but relationship trauma. There’s domestic violence. It’s sexual abuse, depression, anxiety, PTSD, the typical stuff.  

We do get a lot of personality disorders. Specifically, borderline personality disorder is one that we see frequently, but I’ve loved it so far. 

Dominic: One of the things that I hear early on in this conversation from you, Havi, is that training and getting better is important to you. It’s probably why you’re the clinical director at Willow House now, but I think it’s also important for inspiring clinicians to hear that. Was that something that you sought out? Did you seek out more training? Was it like, “This is something I must do”? Can you talk me through that professional development part of your career, if you would? 

 Havi Kang: Absolutely. I’m a clinical supervisor now, and a big piece of what I do as a clinical supervisor is professional development. I will ask that question, “Where do you see your development at now? What are your goals for development? How can I support you in achieving your goals?” I had my own clinical supervisor in the beginning of my career and getting a lot of feedback from them. I’m the type of person that likes to take initiative. Like if I see something, how do I advocate for it? I’ve done that. Even in my previous jobs, I’ve had other managerial position type jobs before. 

Usually, I start at the bottom and then I have worked my way up. Maybe, it’s just like a cultural thing. It’s like work ethic I, again valued super, super high in my culture, so you don’t settle. You just keep going and going and going. For me, it was asking my supervisors, “How can I get more training?” Trauma is for me. That’s my passion. That’s what I love working with. So, I knew that I wanted to get EMDR trained, LPC trained, PIT trained. I wanted all of that. I’m also CSAT trained as well: certified sex addiction therapist. I wasn’t like, “Yes, I want to be a CSAT therapist.” When I was at Claudia Black Young Adult Center, the CSATs that were there were leaving so there was a gap. 

I felt like, “Why not?” I’d be more than happy to give this a go, especially with young adults struggling with sexual issues. I’ve actually had grown to love the work that we do as CSATs and it really supported the work that I do. In terms of professional development specifically during that time as a trauma therapist, I’ve got to really play around with the different treatment modalities and I’ve really got to test some things like, “What works for this type of a patient, what wouldn’t work for this type of a patient? If it does work, then how can I take it another step further? How can I try something different? How can I think outside of the box with this patient and doing things experientially versus just traditional talk therapy?”

I have a whiteboard in my office. I love using the whiteboard. I love jumping up. I think very visually myself. I don’t want to impose that on other people, but I jump up at the board and write my thoughts down as a way for the patient to see how I’m conceptualizing what the story that we might be working on, the trauma that we might be working on. I’ll draw pictures or I’ll draw a table up there and let them know like, “This is what I see here. This is what I’m making up about that.”

I think for them, seeing it visually can help them, but it also helps me to deepen my own clinical skills as well, and of course, by getting support from other therapists. The team that I’m working with, the trauma department that we have at The Meadows, has been great in reaching out for support if I don’t know how to do something or if I’m stuck. This is a patient, this is a story that I have never worked with, and that’s a piece for me where I struggled in the beginning. I wanted to be like, “No, I can do everything,” but that’s just not the case. 

I had to really let those expectations of myself go and just say, “I’m a newbie. This is completely new for me. Who am I to think that I can handle all this?” That’s why we work as a team, and I need to lean into that and take the support that I can. It’s been great in that sense.

Dominic: Thank you for sharing that. You talked earlier about your culture and that work ethic. Tell me more about your culture, Havi, if you don’t mind. 

Havi Kang: My culture is from India. We are Sikh. My family, specifically, we’re pretty traditional but also with a mix of modernism involved in that, too. I have a lot of elderly family who are very traditional, then I have a lot of younger family who are more on the modern side of things. I’m right in that middle gap of all of that. My father has always just been a person that has strived for more and more. He came to America before we did. His sister came to America and so my dad followed along. We ended up staying in England with my mother for about a year and then we moved over to America. 

Watching my dad go through that whole process, starting with literally nothing. We came to this country with nothing. You hear that story, people immigrating with nothing. But at the time, that year that Dad was here, he got us an apartment, he had a job, so he was really building that basic foundation for us, then we came over. I think my dad, just by showing us and by teaching us ethics of work. He’s had businesses my whole life. I’ve always worked in his business. Culturally, it’s just like I’ve just taken on a lot, like, “Let me help with this.” “Let me help with that.” “I’ll take this on.” “I’ll take that on.”

My first job was very young. We had to. I’ve moved here to a place where we have nothing, and so we need to able to support each other. I’m 11 years old and had a concept of what a job is, not necessarily getting paid. I knew what that meant, though. We didn’t grow up with a ton of money and at that young age, you have that awareness. You’re aware of what money is, having a job, and how to support your family. 

Dominic: I wanted to ask that, because I know we’ve talked off camera about you’re doing the year of learning with Resmaa, our newest Senior Fellow here at The Meadows. Can you talk about that experience and going through that process, the year of learning, if you will, Havi? 

Havi Kang: It’s been amazing. It’s something that I’m really glad that The Meadows is doing, getting Resmaa on board. His message and the work that he’s doing, I think has been really great. As a woman of color who’s been through my own trauma as a woman of color and just as a woman period, it’s been interesting hearing Resmaa’s teachings, digging deeper into that, and just his clinical techniques as well have been really interesting in applying it to myself and applying it to the patients that I worked with, particularly the women of color that have come through our doors at Willow House and practicing those skills, that’s just gone a long way.

Even though they’re just simple skills, he has some really good clinical questions and clinical insights that he’s been teaching us, which I loved not only for myself, my own healing and my own reflection of being a woman of color and what that’s done to me and how I can support other women of color as well and just women in general. I think it’s been really good. I could talk all day about it. 

Dominic: I want to expand upon that a little bit, because there has been an uptick in women of color seeking treatment at Willow House. Can you talk about that a little bit? 

Havi Kang: We’re a small program. We’re at 10 beds right now. We will be expanding in the next year to 20 beds and so I’m hoping with that expansion we’ll be able to see a lot more women of color coming through. But because we’re a small unit right now, out of the 10 on a given month, I want to say majority is Caucasian and we’ll get every once in a while, a woman of color coming through, whether they’re biracial or a single race. But really opening up that door with them. Whether it’s racialized trauma, whether they know it or not, I don’t think that’s a term that’s used a lot. Racialized trauma is not a term that’s used.  

I think once we start to open that door a bit, they begin to realize, like, “This has really impacted me. I didn’t think about it in that way.” Even just what I’m learning in Resmaa’s training, he talks a lot about how the body is storing generational trauma. He talks a lot about our ancestors, what they had to go through, how it still lives through us and how our bodies still store all of that. I was telling him about this story during one of our trainings. I won’t go into too many details more, but I was literally reading his book as I was at a tire shop getting my tires changed. There was a male around. I just could feel my body tense up. I was sitting just like this with my legs crossed and my legs tighten and my ankle tighten. I could just feel it. I didn’t know that I was doing it. I was reading the book and it said, “Notice your body right now.” I feel it happening right now. The question that Resmaa asks, “Is it new or is it old?” Meaning is this feeling an old, like generational -type of attention that you’re feeling or is it a new, like in the moment you’re just really tense because you’re afraid for your life or you’re concerned for something. But it was the situation.

I was perfectly normal. I was sitting at a tire shop with other people around, nothing to be terrified about. But yet my body had something else to say about it. My body was tense, and it was telling me, like, “Either I’m not safe or something is up.” So, I had to almost talk to myself and let my body know, “I’m okay, I’m safe. Nothing’s going to happen here.” Even just talking about those experiences that I’ve had with the patients, I don’t think people think about that. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just haven’t thought about those things and having this type of retraining has really opened up my eyes to that, and listening to the other people in the training as well talk about their experiences, I can relate to all of that what others have gone through.  

For me as a woman of color and patients coming through our doors, I make it a point to bring it up with them. Even if they say, “Nope, I’ve got nothing. My life has been great.” But I just wanted to check it out. I just wanted to make sure that this isn’t a piece that gets overlooked during the treatment here, because I know that this can be a big piece of people’s mental health issues. 

Dominic: I imagine that that can sometimes be a barrier, trying to understand especially if you can’t relate right with patients, so I appreciate you sharing that. We’ve actually spoken with Resmaa. When he spoke with me and said, “Dominic, you are not defective.” As I was telling, I could feel that. I know that experience, that you’re talking about the stuff that the body is storing, if you will. So, I appreciate you sharing that. Like we said earlier at the top of the show, you’re the clinical director of Willow House. One of the things you’ve talked about is domestic violence recovery. I know that’s important to you. Can you talk about that a little bit, if you would? 

Havi Kang: Again, I think this is another topic that doesn’t get discussed a lot. At Willow House, I want to be a place where women can bring any type of a women’s issue and be able to treat that. Domestic violence is a very real thing, and a lot of people are not acknowledging it or not understanding what domestic violence is. People think domestic violence is just being hit physically. It can be a lot of different things. It could be financial abuse. It could be the emotional abuse. It could be withholding whatever it might be — it could be withholding sex, money, withholding them from their own family members, and a lot of people don’t look at that as abuse. 

A lot of times with domestic violence, the abuser, whether it’s male or female, it could be either gender. Understanding what domestic violence is. We do have a core lab or a lecture that we teach our patients about, about what domestic violence is and that’s always one of the lectures where we have to be prepared as a treatment team. You’d be like, “The lecture is going out this week. All hands on deck!” because it can be very triggering. A lot of women can get very easily disregulated relating to the content of like, “Oh, my God! It’s still happening to me.” 

So, we want to support them by, number one, providing them with the education, validating their experience, and then talking to them a lot about what recovery for them is going to look like. A lot of times, that’s having a crisis plan. If they feel their home is not safe, what are you going to do, how can we support you to develop a plan to get out of that situation? I’ve heard countless stories of, “He traps me, or she traps me, or I don’t know how to escape. The only way out is either by suicide or just suffering through it, appeasing him or her and just going along with it, until something happens to him or her.”

I think a big piece too is even having some of those thoughts of like, “I wish I wasn’t with this person, but I don’t know how to get out of this.” If something bad happens to them, which I think is a really hard thing for them to talk about, we obviously treat that with trauma treatment, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing. We do a lot of education around the “fight, flight, freeze” responses of trauma. A lot of the women coming in are very frozen, especially if they’re living in a domestically violent home. They feel that they have to just buck up, just hold on, and that’s a lot of that freeze response and not being able to really respond in any other way. They feel like they might not be able to defend themselves.  

They feel like they can’t run away and, therefore, that leaves them with the freeze response. So, a lot of women are coming in, they just almost look like they don’t know what’s going on. They’re very quiet. They might be very timid. They might be not very eager to speak up because they don’t know what’s going to happen if they do speak up, even if it’s the team that they trust. That’s another big piece, too, developing that trust with the patients from the get-go. When they come in, we have to provide an environment that feels safe for them. I know that my team does a really good job of that. We’ve had countless women say that this is probably one of the safest places that they’ve ever been to. 

To really open up about their stories and what their feelings are, what their thoughts are, what their beliefs are — we take that very seriously, as well being able to support our patients through whatever story they want to tell us, even if it’s the wildest thing that you’ve ever heard. I’ve heard some pretty intense stories. We do a lot of, like I said, acute patients, so that’s anything ranging from the very present domestic violence, to sex trafficking, to kidnappings, to violent rapes. We’ve seen a lot, including childhood sexual offending behaviors. We’ve looked at all of that. 

Thank you for listening to this very important discussion with Havi Kang, Clinical Director of Willow House at Meadows Behavioral Health. Come back next week as we discuss narcissistic behavior and “gaslighting.” For more information on the work Havi does at Willow House, go to willowhouseforwomen.com.

Beyond Theory is produced and hosted by me, Dominic Lawson. You can discover more, including videos of some of our conversations, at BeyondTheory.com. Finally, thank you for listening and I hope you join us next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.