I first became aware of the impact of secondhand trauma back in the mid-90s. I was working as a therapist in a Community Mental Health Center and a lot of my clients were survivors of sexual abuse. So I was already learning about the effects of trauma when there was a dramatic increase in the crime rate. Suddenly, people in the neighborhood were getting shot – and killed.
I began to see first-hand how one person’s death impacted their family and the people around them – their church family, the people they went to school with or worked with, everyone who knew them. Each shooting was a trauma that rippled out and affected the whole community. The ripples touched the staff at our center too – often, when someone got killed, we knew them. Sometimes they were our client, or maybe we knew their mama or their brother and sister or even the person who sat next to them back in third grade. We were connected to them.
One of my former clients was killed, a woman I’d worked with for a long time. After that, I started getting the newspaper at home – first thing in the morning, I’d check the neighborhood section and the obits to see if anyone I knew had been killed.
Stories from those days stuck with me. I remember a teenager in one my groups – we were talking about feeling safe, and she said, “Well, I feel safe in my neighborhood, I mean, you hear gunshots at night, but that’s everywhere.” And I thought, no. No, I don’t hear gunshots in my neighborhood at night, and I felt this deep sadness and a tinge of guilt. I remember a little boy, maybe eight years old, telling me, “Oh, no, my mama won’t let me play outside – it’s not safe.” And I thought about how it would feel to not be able to let your child play in the yard.
But I didn’t even realize it was affecting me til I was at the park one day. It was a beautiful day, and I was walking on a path near a creek and there were some other people around, but not too many. There were these three teenagers – two boys and a girl, and they had a big goofy looking dog with them. Just ordinary looking white kids in jeans, hanging out. And I was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that something bad was going to happen. I didn’t know if it was going to happen to them, or if they were going to do something terrible – was that girl going to be ok? Did she really know those guys? Or maybe it was the dog – maybe they were going to do something to the dog? My heart was pounding, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I wanted to go warn the kids to go home where it was safe – and I held it together just enough to know that was crazy and to NOT go say something to them.
I left instead. Went and sat in my car til I could breathe again, and drove straight home. But that was when I knew that the things that were happening to people at work – people I cared about – were touching me on some deep level. It took that panic attack to make me realize that other people’s trauma was becoming my trauma too.
That was the beginning of my own journey – my own efforts to figure out how to manage my feelings – how to hold my own space – so I could be there for the people who were actually going through the trauma. I’ve wandered down all kinds of roads, taken wrong turns, lost my maps, and started over. I’ve collected tool kits and self-care techniques, used mindfulness strategies and listened to TED talks. That’s not to say that I’ve got all the answers, but I know the questions really well. Kind of like in The Wizard of Oz, I’ve met amazing people along the way, and sometimes I’ve been scared and felt overwhelmed. But these days, I usually remember that my ruby slippers will always take me home.
So I know what it’s like to be a compassionate professional and in the middle of it – when it feels like there’s trauma all around you and you can’t think straight. You can feel like you’re losing your self. And you wonder if you can even keep doing the work you love. That’s when I can help. I can help you take a step back and find space to breathe. Help you reconnect with yourself and figure out what you need to be ok, how to keep your own balance and find your own strength. You’ll learn how to manage your own feelings and hold the space you need for yourself. You’ll be able to bring your gifts and talents to the people who need you, able to have a life that lets you shine.