I have been practicing Social Work for 26 years and I am tired.
As I reflect back on the last decade, I am amazed at how this profession has changed me and formed me into the person, the mother, the co-worker, the sister, the friend and the lover that I have become.
My first job in the Social Work field was working at a Battered Women’s Shelter as a Residential Aid. One of my job duties was to answer the crisis line. Usually we were the first line of defense for these women and we would hear the fighting in the background, the screams and cries of the children and the breaking of glass and furniture.
When I volunteered at a Suicide Crisis Hotline, one of the calls I answered was from a man was at a phone booth telling me he was going to kill himself. I could hear the sounds of clicks and metal on metal through the phone as he loaded his gun. He hung up without letting me help. To this day, I have no idea if he used that gun on himself or not, but I will never forget those sounds and the desperation and fear I felt, never mind the guilt and hopelessness.
I ignored these feelings and continued on my journey of being of benefit and helping others, completely forgetting about helping myself.
I also worked the midnight shift in a 24-hour crisis center. On one of these late night shifts, a client with a Personality Disorder came out of her room, dripping in blood with a piece of glass in her hand. I followed the appropriate protocol and procedure and left when my shift was over.
We would “process” incidents like these with our clients afterward, develop safety plans and refer our clients to support groups.
In hindsight I find it interesting that no one ever asked me “How are you doing?”
Again, my young self pushed this trauma to the back of my head and continued doing my life’s work without once checking in with myself to see if I was okay—was I naive, or simply unable to care for myself as I should?
Then there was the time that I was strangled by a patient in the psychiatric hospital where I worked. His hands wrapped around my throat as he pushed me up against the wall.
I was petrified.
I returned to work the next day as usual but I had changed. I began to walk onto the unit afraid, with my back up against the wall and in a total fight or flight state. I decided that day that I would look for another job. It is not “normal” to be so scared at work.
So, I found another Social Work job in a community mental health agency where I would provide individual, group and family therapy sessions in a nice office with security in the lobby. Yet, the stories the clients told of sexual abuse, physical violence and neglect still left me with feelings of fight or flight; I still felt emotionally and spiritually drained.
I finally found a job in a charter school for children with special education needs and I love it. These students have taught me more than I think I could ever teach them. They are resilient. They are problem-solvers. They come to school every day because they feel safe with us—the truest tribute of our service to these young souls.
I had realized that my 26 years of service, working with such marginalized populations and ignoring the need for self-care, led me to suffer from some form of Vicarious Trauma (VT). I had an exaggerated startle response, inability to focus, chronic fatigue and insomnia as well as an increase in a negative outlook; I became cynical and aggressive in my thinking. I could not watch the news or read the newspaper.
I rarely, if ever, answered the phone and I was definitely not present with my friends and family.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk talks about the spiritual, mental and physical connections we have and the need to incorporate and assimilate these elements in order to overcome trauma. His book, The Body Keeps the Score talks about our internalized thoughts regarding a traumatic event and the inability to be mindful in the present moment.
People are stuck in the past traumatic event and struggle with emotional regulation and relationship issues just to name a few. It is evident in the clients that I see as well as in myself, where we are “stuck” and he encourages practitioners to assist our clients (and ourselves, I’ve found) to be more active in their recovery by using drama and theatrical performances, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), Neurofeedback as well as many other techniques.
All of these tools assist in bringing the client out of the past and returning to the present by reprocessing these destructive thoughts that are blocking them from moving forward. Once this occurs, I believe the person’s ability to grow spiritually can occur. It did for me. Similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs where if an individual does not have food, clothing, shelter or safety, then it is near impossible to move forward toward self-actualization.
I decided about two years ago, if these students can be so resilient in the face of trauma, I can too. I wanted and, more importantly, needed to work through all of these years of seeing and hearing about others’ trauma. I started to practice mindfulness and yoga. This practice has helped me immensely in working with and training my brain to be more present. Yoga helped me be one with my body as opposed to just an observer, on the outside. As I embraced the mind body connection, the healing began.
I also acknowledged the need for support. I got counseling and had several sessions of EMDR, which changed my life for the better. I continue to work on my “stuff” through journaling and writing as well as alternative exercises such as making vision boards and reaching out to my colleagues for support and affirmations.
The website, HumanSevicesEdu.org notes that early detection of Vicarious Trauma, self-care and healthy boundaries with our clients can assist in decreasing the impact of our clients’ trauma on us, the service providers.
My 26 years of service has not been all bad, by no means, and I am here today to tell you that although the work has been difficult and challenging, it has also been one of the most rewarding journeys I have had. It has allowed me to grow both emotionally and spiritually. I have become a better person, mother, co-worker, sister, friend and lover and I am finally on my way to self-actualization.
Those of us passionate about helping others that are working in the service field, to be of benefit for the less fortunate, must first take of care ourselves. A bit of a cliché, but, oh so true.
As I stand, exhausted and numb at 7:45 p.m. at the end of our school’s annual Math Night, I look over to see both of my children putting chairs away, clearing off tables and sweeping the gymnasium floor. This is what my years of service really looks like: pride, joy and love.
“Seek the wisdom that will untie your knot. Seek the path that demands your whole being.” ~ Rumi
Author: Corinne Milentijevic
Editor: Travis May
Images: Movie Still from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest