Bar bathrooms are dark, dingy, and surprisingly omniscient. Sammy Smith became privy to this long-kept secret of toilet-side wisdom when she moved to NYC. She was in her mid-twenties, fresh out of college in the Golden State, and searching—as every twenty-something is—for answers. Answers to the questions that can’t properly be verbalized. Essentially, answers to life. Her answers appeared while she was at a bar on Hudson Street. “I was in the bathroom and I looked up and there was something so poignant on the wall, and I was like, ‘That’s it! That is the answer to everything! This is going to get me through my twenties!’ And I went out and wrote it on a napkin and I put it in my back pocket,” Smith recalls with a laugh. “I pulled out this wad of napkin from my back pocket the next morning and couldn’t read anything on it, but it was my first introduction to it, to the amazing content out there from all different people. If you think of it now, those were the original status updates, like on Facebook or Twitter, but hard copy.”
When given the key to life, albeit in an unexpected form, there’s only one thing to do: publish a book. Smith couldn’t hog all of that knowledge to herself, after all, but she needed some time to decide binding up her findings in print was the best next step. It took moving back to California—San Francisco—and her best friend gifting her a book in which to write down all of the bar-bathroom messages she encountered. Soon Smith realized writing them wasn’t enough, it didn’t sufficiently capture the walls’ scrawls. “I realized one of the best parts of it was the penmanship and the banter back and forth and the spelling or lack of spelling,” Smith says. “And so I started taking pictures of them. I borrowed my dad’s Canon Rebel, which I loved, and I went out with this big bulky camera shoved in a purse because I didn't want to be too conspicuous walking into a bathroom.” Smith is not a classically trained photographer, but she has the eye for it and sees value in the moments snapped and crystallized.
“I think from being a history major and lover of history, really I love to capture time,” Smith says. “To me, photography is about capturing moments and capturing time. So there are a couple different sides to my art I think. There’s photography and writing and social history and all of that.”
“I would always get a drink and then by the end of it I was friends with the bartender or someone else sitting there. I’d tell them about my project and they’d love it"
Smith reveals her preppy fashion sense—picture plaid on plaid—did not blend in with the punk-rock dive bars she was photographing, but her personality won over bartenders and patrons alike. “I would always get a drink and then by the end of it I was friends with the bartender or someone else sitting there,” Smith says. “I’d tell them about my project and they’d love it. Guys would lead me into the mens room probably thinking they were getting more than me just taking photos. I was like, ‘No, I’m just here to take photos, really!’” Thanks to her sociability, Smith got more than cocktails from the bartenders while scoping out the bars, she got the true inside scoop. Bartenders would excitedly show Smith their own favorite bathroom messages, pointing out things she might not have noticed otherwise. Who knows what words lurk in the corners of the walls better than the bartenders?
“I was just in Seattle and I took a bunch of pictures in this one bathroom. I loved this one that said ‘bitches get shit done’ and it had two cherries above it, and then below it somebody had written ‘but they can’t be president,’ and someone had written below that ‘that’s the damn truth.’ I just love that dialogue. I was looking through all my film and I saw another one that I hadn’t noticed before that said ‘witches get shit done,’ and I thought it was hilarious next to the other one. There are little hidden gems all over.”
“It’s broken down by love and heartbreak, and there’s a section on pizza versus tacos, and one about body parts—people love to draw and talk about body parts"
In 2015, Smith compiled her eclectic photographs in a book of nearly 300 pages and cleverly titled it, Advice From John. Self-publishing was the name of the game, Smith having gotten a loan from her dad, and she found a printing company in Minneapolis. She describes Advice From John as a “coffee table book,” quite a wonderfully atypical one at that. “It’s broken down by love and heartbreak, and there’s a section on pizza versus tacos, and one about body parts—people love to draw and talk about body parts.” Anonymous wit, humor, and wisdom from those whiling away in restrooms paints each page. There are no limits in what striking content can be stripped from a stall.
“I thought Advice from John was so cool as a book, but then when I was looking at some of the pictures, they’re layered and have all this color and these poignant things that they say—some sad, some profound, some of them really stupid, like one was ‘I like your face so hard,’—I needed them to be bigger, so I blew them up and printed them on metal with vibrant colors.”
"When I was looking at some of the pictures in there, they’re layered and they have all this color and these poignant things that they say—some sad, some profound, some of them really stupid. I needed them to be bigger, so I blew them up and printed them on metal with all these vibrant colors"
Smith says that self-publishing is not the hard part, rather getting one’s finished product out there is, especially with a day job keeping you busy. Smith is a personal assistant with unpredictable hours, a blessing and a curse. “It’s definitely not a 9-5, which is great...sometimes,” Smith admits. “I just got into a relationship a couple of years ago and got the work-life balance talk from my girlfriend recently. I haven’t been balancing it well, but I’m going to try to again. It’s a lot. Like I said, I love my job and that everyday is different, but if I’m not working on my own creativity and passion projects, then what’s the point of it all?”Luckily Smith’s boss encourages her artistic endeavors and allows her the freedom to take a couple days off here and there to make important leaps with her art, and he isn’t the only one, Smith’s parents offering their support as well. “I have a great support system,” Smith says. “My mom and stepdad were [at my show in San Francisco], holding the easel for me. I worked so hard on making the book, I didn’t want all these copies sitting in my garage, so this year I made a commitment to myself that I was really going to take more time to work on it. I’d say I’d given it probably 25% more of my time factoring in my day job. I probably need to give it 50% more for it to really push off.”
What’s next for Smith’s art? “I’m really trying to contact hotels, restaurants, and those kinds of places,” she says. “I think it’s the kind of thing that’s instagrammable. Everybody wants to take a picture with a giant neon sign that says ‘I do what I want.’ There’s a science to it.” Smith also dreams of being an art model, her pieces on display in all of their neon glory in a funky city like Miami; from there, she hopes her art will sell her books. Her ultimate goal would be to make her dreams her day job, dedicating all of her time to Advice From John and her art.
Now, thanks to Smith and that bar she stumbled upon years ago, you know to never underestimate the messy, silly, meaningful etchings on a bathroom wall. Your eyes might catch sight of the very thing that changes the course of your life.
For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.
As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.
Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.
What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein
This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.
Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.
While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.
"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.
Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.
In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.
"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."