Thursday, February 21, 2019

A plea for compassionate self-care

By David S. Prescott, LICSW

Several years ago, I confided to a colleague that I had no history of sexual victimization. Although many of my closest friends have survived sexual abuse and only some discuss it publicly, I have not experienced it personally. I told my friend that this has sometimes posed a dilemma for me: so many people have experienced so many kinds of abuse that I almost never share the fact that I haven’t. I commented to this person that it sometimes seems strange that I keep my own lack of an abuse history private. “I haven’t been traumatized”, I said. “Wait a minute, David”, she said, smiling. You want to tell me that you’ve worked in the field of sexual violence prevention for over 30 years and you haven’t been traumatized?”

Silence followed. I remembered a nightmare from the early 1990s when I dreamed about a client approaching me in the dark, arms bleeding from self-harm, begging me to help him. I thought about all the times I’ve heard arguments in public places and briefly wondered about my status as a mandated reporter of abuse. I thought about all the times I hoped and prayed that my own children would not be abused and all the (likely unnecessary) steps I had taken to prevent it from happening. Then I thought about how unfair it seemed to think of myself as having paid a significant price for working in this field when so many of my colleagues had experienced much worse. It was a long time before I realized that this kind of “others have it worse” thinking actually facilitates the secondary trauma (also known as vicarious trauma) of doing this work.

I offer the above, not because it’s particularly special, but because this response to our work is so commonplace. Yes, I’ve had it lucky, but never easy. The simple fact is that this work has a cumulative effect; a kind of second-hand smoke of the soul. Others haven’t done so well.  In one famous case, a charismatic forensic psychiatrist went public about the PTSD he had acquired from doing his work. In a much sadder situation, a highly respected forensic psychologist committed suicide after revelations that he had placed a webcam in the staff’s bathroom in his office. Other cases abound.

A major problem is that professionals rarely talk openly about the effect that this work has on us. If we’re honest, all too often we can resort to our own bad habits related to anything from poor nutritional choices to what leadership guru John C. Maxwell has called the “3 A’s” of alcohol, arrogance, and adultery. Many a good career has gone bad not because of a specific incident, but because of the slow build-up of doing the work without an explicit regimen of self-care.

Another problem is that it is easy to grasp the idea of secondary traumatization when reading an article or blog post, but not so easy to recognize its role in our lives. It can be harder still to take action, establish a plan for deliberate self-care, and maintain it across time. And again, we need to talk about it more, and I will again offer myself up as a case in point. This is our 302nd blog post since 2010, and yet it is the first time this topic has received direct attention.

Adding to the confusion are all of the positive effects of doing this work. Like many others, I’ve become a better citizen, neighbor, father, husband, and man as a result of working in the fields of trauma and abuse; it’s difficult to imagine doing anything else. Yet I am quite certain I couldn’t keep going if it weren’t for an explicit focus on daily exercise, yoga, and meditation. Yes, these aren’t for everyone; for others, it can be anything from artwork to cooking to bird watching to the right vacations.

For a brief period of my life, I lived in Minnesota and worked closely with former employees of the Department of Corrections. They had a saying: “If you don’t get a break from working on the farm, you’ll start to smell like the barn.” It was a lovely way of saying that we can easily become influenced – and not in a good way – by the settings in which we work. In the spirit of camaraderie, they would remind each other, “Don’t you start smelling like the barn.”

In the end, those of us who are in this work for the long haul should remember three things about secondary trauma:

  1. The effects of secondary trauma are almost certainly inevitable. No one is beyond its reach.
  2. The effects of secondary trauma are different for everyone.
  3. Everything you need to grow beyond secondary trauma and prevent its effects already exists within you.

This last point is the most important. Self-awareness and self-observation, combined with the right intention, combined with the right action, can accomplish wonders. Please be careful out there!

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