I get to write the first blog of the month on April Fool’s Day, no less (oh the irony). 

In the last year I have had so many changes in my life.

I often question what I am going to write about and its significance to others. But, sometimes we write for ourselves. It’s cathartic to get things out of your head and on to paper. I would often tell my patients to do this, and then they can do what they like with the paper. I figured I would take my own advice and start new beginnings. We can write things that move people, nevr knowing just how much we’re affecting others.

So here’s to starting fresh; how appropriate with the beginning of spring. The smell of flowers blooming, the sun is shining brighter and the temperature is going up.

There is a topic I have not touched on before. It goes by many names such as compassion fatigue, secondary traumatization and vicarious trauma.

 As defined by; Wikipedia; Vicarious traumatization (VT) is a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences. It is a special form of countertransference stimulated by exposure to the client’s traumatic material.[1] Its hallmark is disrupted spirituality, or a disruption in the trauma workers’ perceived meaning and hope. The term was coined specifically with reference to the experience of psychotherapists working with trauma survivor clients.[2] Others, including Saakvitne, Gamble, Pearlman, and Lev (2000) have expanded its application to a wide range of persons who assist trauma survivors, including clergy,[3] front-line social workers,[4] justice system professionals,[5][6] health care providers,[7][8] humanitarian workers,[9][10] journalists, and first responders.[8]

As I wrote in a previous blog, my agency shut down the branch I was working at in September 2018. I never in a million years thought that would happen. On my last day, September 30, as I packed up my office and took stuff out to my car; I decompressed a minute. I took a huge breath, a sigh of relief. I had to tell myself this is all going to be okay. You’ve got this.

I was given years of training on how to deal with trauma survivors. I spent 20 years working with young ladies, 12-18 years old, who were victims of verbal, sexual and physical abuse; had been incarcerated and then placed in our facility, drug abuse, trafficking, etc.  I did individual, group and family therapy.  I did not realize the emotional toll it had taken on me until I stepped away, and knew that I had to face the reality of the horrific stories I had heard during my life.

To be honest, at first, I was so excited. I didn’t have to go to work anymore. I had all this free time for me. As a few weeks passed, I noticed I was unable to watch some of the shows I had enjoyed in the past, such as Criminal Minds, Law and Order SVU, and the like.

I would hear stories on the news, and I would have to turn the TV off. I did not want to hear about any of it.

I was told that a human trafficking ring, thwarted in Brooklyn, was part of an investigation. I knew nine of the individuals who were victims through my work with human trafficking abuses.

I broke down a little. I became extremely emotional. It had been my life for twenty years.  I bared witness to some of the most horrific conditions known to man during the work I did when I was out in the community. I spent time looking for missing girls; pounding the pavement; that for a variety of reasons the rest of society was not worried about their missing status.  I spent time in court testifying on cases; making decisions about other people’s lives, and all the while praying I had done enough research to know I was making the right decagons. There was a fear factor. I went into other people’s homes; alone, made decisions if a child could return to that home. I cannot share details but, my life was threatened on many occasions. I had been barricaded in my office and was held once against my will in a home, along with another worker. We had to call the police to get us out. These are a few examples of what was endured.

During sessions I had the honor of hearing people’s stories; most that had never been told before. But, it took its toll on me. I noticed my own mood changes, inability to trust, not allowing my kids to go anywhere without me, being overprotective, skeptical, worrying about the littlest things that most people don’t give a second thought. I could go on and on ( don’t want to bore you)

Social workers are often looked at as the person who does welfare, food stamps, etc.  There is nothing wrong with those roles. But, social workers play such a myriad of roles that no one is aware of at all.  I am a social worker, and I have a license to do private practice.

A testament to change is that many of these individuals keep in contact. They share with me the change I made in their life, and it is a pleasure to see that despite those most horrific traumas they have survived and are flourishing.  It brings me great joy to see some of these young ladies go on to be moms, police officers, social workers, restaurant owners, etc…  They are the true HEROS!

Over the years I did not really share what I did for a living. It does not make for light conversation at a party. It truly is heart wrenching.

I have spent the last six months really trying to decompress. I realize I have such a jaded view of things. I tend to make my kids crazy because I worry about the littlest thing such as them going to the mall, walking somewhere alone, wanting to go out with friends.  I ask a 1000 questions. I have tried not to bring my job home and was actually very successful at leaving it at work. But, once I was actually out of the work environment, I began to really examine all I had witnessed. 

I am a work in progress. I realize the toll of being in a helping profession. It is so important to recognize this and participate in self-care.

Anyone who finds they are feeling a sense of vicarious trauma; I recommend a book that I felt was helpful:

Deborah Levine-Powell is a psychotherapist in New York, where she works with teenage girls who are victims of abuse and trafficking. She is a wife and a mom to a tween and teenager. When she is not working, you can find her engaged in PTA activities, a leader at Girl Scouts, having fun with her friends and family, while serving up hot soulful dishes in the kitchen.

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