10 January 2010
Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
I have been making decisions about my future. I am taking the steps needed to get into a graduate program to work towards a Masters degree in Social Work.
It is something I have contemplated for awhile, but had to be sure of before I committed. I believe this is my calling in life. Many things have pointed me in this direction, working with military veterans as a career. But after 6 years of doing it as a volunteer, I felt wary. Burned out. Unsure that I had the emotional reserves to do it as a career.
I have spent the past year really examining my heart and praying about what God wants for my life. I have made a conscious effort to examine the events that have stacked up in my volunteer work, to accept them and to process them.
It is not easy to work with military personnel in a time of war. It is not easy to work with Veterans. It is not easy to work with the wounded. It is not easy to work with families. It is not easy to build intense relationships while also knowing these people may be killed in combat. It is not easy when they are. The entire military family has to deal with things like PTSD, catastrophic injuries, worry, fear, stress, anxiety, readjustment issues, and the chaos of multiple deployments.
What I have come to accept is that those who work with these people must also deal with these issues. Each situation is traumatic for the soldier. They are also traumatic for those that love the soldier, and those that stand behind the soldier.
Though we that work with soldiers are very good about pushing awareness of PTSD and urging them to talk about the hard things that happen during their deployments, we rarely consider the effect hearing about these things has on us.
It is easy to understand that a soldier is changed by firing his weapon, killing an enemy, being ambushed, watching a friend be wounded or killed, being hit by an IED, being forced to be constantly alert to the danger in his environment, and being away from his friends and family while their lives continue on.
Less thought is given to the person the soldier calls at 3:00am, sobbing, confessing that he killed a man. Less thought is given to the person who goes about their day knowing the soldier might be hit by an IED at any time, or knows the soldier was on the helo the news reports has crashed. Less thought is given to the person who answers the emails detailing the way the battle buddy went down, the way it feels to wake up to gunfire everyday, the split second decision to fire or not fire on a 12 year old pointing an RPG at the vehicle, how much missing her son's birthday for the 3rd year in a row hurts.
Those of us that work with soldiers do so out of love and good intentions. But rarely is the price spoken of, certainly it isn't mentioned when I first got involved, and even now, it is only spoken of in hushed tones. After all, maybe these things upset us, maybe we notice that we have more anxiety now than we did, maybe feel a little down, but it is nothing. What right do we have to complain, it is the soldiers suffering the real hardships. There is an often unsaid but implied notion that you should just suck it up, tough it out. And so we stay quiet, often until we burn out.
This is something that has been bothering me for years. I didn't know what it was, or what questions to ask, but I had the nagging feeling that something was wrong. I hit the burnout point after 4 years and personally interacting with over 300+ soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. But like a good soldier, I carried on, I found ways to cope. For me, I built walls to protect myself. I tried not to feel so much when I heard a sad story, or found out a soldier I had connections to died. I ignored the feelings of sadness, fatigue and anxiety, but I knew I didn't feel right. I found myself wishing I had someone to talk to about all this, but felt like I didn't deserve to draw any attention to myself. I felt like there had to be a better way to go about things, I just had no idea what that way was, or how to go about finding it.
I have spent the past two years trying to find it.
It started with an undergraduate research project that I eventually took to conference.
Reading Laura van Dernoot Lipsky's Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others was the the first time I found a name to what I was experiencing.
It is called secondary or vicarious trauma.
I found myself nodding in agreement to something on just about every page of the first chapter. She inspired me to truly understand the nature of and responses to trauma and how it influences caregivers. This is something I want to continue to research in graduate school, but until I get there, I am learning all I can now.
In the Foreward, Jon R Conte, Ph.D. says "Most of all, trauma stewardship calls on us to remember that it is a gift to be present when people deal with trauma; it reminds us of our responsibility to care and to nurture our capacity to help... she helps us to understand our feelings and behavior as natural responses to that flow from our humanity (xii)."
van Dernoot says that exposure to other people's trauma becomes a part of us, changes us, and changes our view of the world as we absorb it (3).
She also explains her journey creating the book, and as one who deals with the trauma of others. She says, "First, I need to take responsibility for acknowledging the effects of trauma exposure within myself. Second, I had to learn how to make room for my own internal process -- to create space within to heal and to discover what I would need to continue with clarity on my chosen path. I had to find some way to bear witness to trauma without surrendering my ability to live fully (4)." What she discovers is the framework of trauma stewardship.
This is the journey I am on as I set out on the slow path to a new career.
I am learning to acknowledge the effects of trauma exposure within myself and learning my own internal processes as I deal with trauma exposure.
I am excited to be working my way through the book. It isn't always easy, but so far, it has been extremely helpful. Anyone who works with trauma, or who acts as a caregiver in anyway should consider giving this book a try.