News | Oct. 21, 2016

Educator, therapist explains hidden disabilities

By Dianne Ryder

Local psychologist, pastor and former Virginia Commonwealth University professor Micah McCreary addressed McNamara Headquarters Complex leaders and employees in the Kabeiseman Center Oct. 19 in celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness month.

McCreary spoke about “hidden disabilities” and the challenges they can present. 

“My dad was my hero. He was a veteran of the Korean war, and he was a pastor,” McCreary said. “I was converted to being a man of spiritual essence because of his teaching.”

But McCreary described how his childhood hero soon became his oppressor. 

“My dad, who had been my rock, became the man that I was deathly afraid of,” he said. 

McCreary said his father began to drink, gamble and mistreat him, his mother and his six siblings. Eventually, his father abandoned the family. 

“As the oldest son of the seven children, that was devastating,” he said.

McCreary was 12 years old at the time. By the time he was in college, despite his resentment, McCreary decided to meet with his father.

“We started corresponding with each other,” he said. “In 1985, New Year’s Eve, we met in my mother’s basement and for four hours, we just talked about life.” 

McCreary told his father it was too late for him to be a dad to him but that they could move forward as friends.

“On February 14, 1986, he passed away,” he said. “And I went on to graduate from seminary. And because of my work with youth, I wanted to become a psychologist.”

McCreary achieved his dream of becoming a psychologist, and in 1993, he was working in Philadelphia when he got a call to teach at VCU in Richmond, Virginia. 

“In moving, I found a letter my father had written me back in 1986; I had never read it,” he said. 

McCreary discovered his father had also wanted to become a psychologist. But he had been tortured during wartime and later received treatment for depression.  

“That was a lot of why he had acted the way he had,” McCreary said. “I now know … that it was an invisible disability. My father was struggling with brain stuff — depression and anxiety.”

McCreary said the letter helped him understand the trauma his father had endured and the pressures of trying to provide for seven children. That realization affected his own decisions about having children after McCreary married his college sweetheart.

“My father’s life was impacting me – I couldn’t have children until I had gotten my economics, my career to a place where I could support them,” he said. 

McCreary posed the question to the audience about people who may have influenced their own decisions based on that person’s life experience.

“Wouldn’t it be really powerful to have the peace to just stop for a moment and say, ‘What’s going on?’” he said. 

McCreary further defined invisible or hidden disabilities as traumas to the mind, heart or spirit that prevent someone from processing things the way a person would who hasn’t been through such severe circumstances.

“It doesn’t allow them to focus; it doesn’t allow them to pick up social cues,” he said. 

McCreary talked about how as he spoke, he was “reading the room,” picking up on whether the audience was listening. But he also stressed the importance of picking up on non-visible signals.

“It’s the things that we don’t see that are the most powerful and most important,” he said. 

McCreary describes himself as “hyper” and said even as a pastor, he’s unable to stand still behind a pulpit. But he said, recognizing this characteristic in himself has helped him engage with others. He gave as an example an autistic child who attended his church and enjoyed the opportunity to join him on stage during the service.

“Often, in settings outside the workplace is where we really need to do the kind of things necessary to bring about community,” he said. “But what happens so often is that we allow our own fears of what’s going to happen [to interfere].”

McCreary also relayed some of the unique challenges of teaching students at various levels of mental competency and his more recent experience as president and CEO of a psychological and human resources consulting firm. 

“I took a men’s group on, and it was really powerful to take over a group of men who had been [dealing with substance abuse] and help them to recognize that so much of what they were doing was connected to the economic, familial and mental health issues they were dealing with,” he said. “There’s so much for us to learn from folks we work with invisible disabilities.”

McCreary said he considers himself a great therapist not because of his training but because of his own psychological history and the painful experiences he’s endured. 

“Walking through my own trauma and getting my own healing has given me a sensitivity and understanding of what it’s like to be in a traumatic experience,” he said. “The [memories] don’t hinder me, but they are vivid.”

McCreary stressed the importance of emotional intelligence over book knowledge and said two keys to what he’s learned are continual engagement and perseverance. 
“No matter how messed up someone is when it comes to depression or anxiety … I found that you can teach people to meditate … It actually allows the brain to reconnect to different neurons; it allows the brain to heal itself,” he said. “Our brains are so powerful. We can do so much to make ourselves better.” 

Following a question-and-answer session, DLA Director Air Force Lt. Gen. Andy Busch presented McCreary a certificate of appreciation.