A vicarious trauma

This week I received a strong taste of my own medicine. Increasingly over the last year, I have spent more and more time traveling around the country talking to audiences about the risk of vicarious trauma for public servants. There have been police officers, child protection workers, mental health clinicians, medical staff, and first responders in the audiences and it always makes me feel unbelievably proud to speak to them about self-preservation and protection.

Vicarious trauma is the changing of thoughts, mood, and beliefs after being exposed to trauma on a daily basis. Secondary trauma is the increase of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms after being exposed to an incident at work that made us feel like we were in imminent danger. Somewhere in between (although no one has come up with a name for it quite yet) is an immediate bio/psycho/social response to another person's trauma after being deeply triggered.

This past week I spent with a younger female client listening over and over again to her stories of emotional, physical, sexual, and mental abuse at the hands of several different male caregivers. It took her almost 8 days to fully unravel the details of the story and throughout she continued to say I was the person she needed to report to. In the pit of my stomach, from many years of being in this role, I know that if I am the chosen listener for a child's story there is no way to turn away, and so early on this week I made a commitment to hang in there and hear it.

On the last day of the week I had a massage scheduled. It was a birthday present from last year (which has taken me nearly seven months to be able to find time to use) and I didn't want to cancel it, plus in the back of my mind I thought, "this is good timing, make it through this week and then go take care of myself a little." When I walked into the spa, a man behind the counter checked me in and then informed me he would be giving me the massage. The color drained from my face, a pit seized in my stomach, and I gulped. After all the experiences this week, I didn't want a massage from a man.

My thoughts immediately started, "why am I freaking out, obviously he is a masseuse, it's not that big of a deal, calm down, breathe, he is not a stranger, he is a professional, you can't tell him you would rather a female because you will have to cancel....", on and on and on. Trying to breathe so I could slow my thought process didn't work. Flashes from the week's stories came flooding back. The child's inability to speak her truth and have her voice heard. My hands began to shake and pins and needles went shooting up my neck. In case you are wondering, this type of thing is just not like me.

This clearly was, and I knew this as an outside observer of myself, a visceral response to a trigger. With the emotional taxing from the week, my own personal history, and the details of her story flying around in my mind, I couldn't tolerate the idea. I asked him if could take a minute to collect myself and used that time to stop trying to talk myself out of it and acknowledged that I was being triggered. Instead of bullying myself, I was compassionate, "You have been through a lot this week, those stories you heard over and over again were horrific, of course you are having a hard time. This is not about this man, he is likely not a predator, this is about the impact of your own history and the trauma you hear everyday. What would make you feel better?" I knew instantaneously what I needed.

As I approached the masseuse, I asked, "Do you mind if I keep my underwear and bra on?" Even coming out of my mouth it seemed silly as I freely and happily get completely undressed for the female masseuses that I know.

He replied, "Of course, what ever makes you feel more comfortable."

I deeply wanted to share with him what I had been through so he wouldn't take it personally and then I remembered, the cure to vicarious and secondary trauma is freedom, choice, joy, and insight. I remembered the details of the massage had nothing to do with the masseuse, just as my trigger had nothing to do with him, it was for and about me. In moments of deep vulnerability and rawness, it is only with self-compassion and self-love that we can make it through.

As he slathered on the massage oil, my body stiffened and prickled and I breathed in. Reminding myself, this is not a scenario where I am being forced, it is not the story of the child who has entrusted me to hold her truth, this is not pain it is self-care. There were moments that I actually had to talk myself through the fear and anxiety to stay in the moment.

Realizing that because of the intensity level of the week long disclosure I was able to recognize the traumatic debris left on me, but day in and day out I am picking up small particles of my client's rage, pain, and sadness that likely I do not notice. This is a difficult and emotionally taxing job and although I go around the country talking about these occupational hazards, I received another lesson this week.

I remain deeply in gratitude to this young woman who trusted me and to the masseuse who must have clearly felt my energy and continued to work toward putting me at ease and to those who have loved and supported me through my own personal traumas. This is the circle of pain and healing.