On the day of writing this blog about vicarious trauma, in a sad twist of irony, I found out a dear friend passed away.
Just a couple weeks after her 22nd birthday, sweet Anna Joy died of a massive seizure caused by the pressure from a glioblastoma – a cancerous tumor in her brain. But it was Anna Joy’s initial diagnosis in 2016 that marked my recognition of vicarious trauma in my own life.
I found out about Anna Joy’s deadly brain tumor diagnosis while I was attending a Counselling Conference in Montreal. She was only 16 at the time.
At the conference, I dutifully dragged myself to each session, listening to highly engaging speakers and desperately trying to push the news of Anna Joy’s diagnosis into some little box at the back of my mind. I sat, surrounded by hundreds of counsellors, pretending to listen. But I was also seriously questioning the point of my work (a job in retail looked far more appealing). I didn’t want to care about others if caring hurt this much.
It is the most profound privilege to be with people in these exceptionally vulnerable moments.
Day after day, as a registered clinical counsellor, I listen to people sharing their trauma and pain. Please know, it is the most profound privilege to be with people in these exceptionally vulnerable moments. Allowing me in to hear their stories, and bear witness to their raw emotions is a precious part of my work, a gift given to me by my clients.
Vicarious trauma is one of the main costs of helping others.
I pretended this work didn’t have a cost to me for far too long. Anna Joy’s diagnosis was the last teetering brick in a drawn-out game of Jenga. I had no choice but to look at my own mental health and consider the impact of the work I was doing.
I began by asking myself this question: Is it possible to do this work and not have it take a toll?
As Counsellors, we don’t get to say, “I just can’t imagine.” We have to imagine it; we have to feel it – that’s the crucible of empathy. It’s a requirement of the job.
So, the question isn’t Will this take a toll on me? but rather How can I mitigate the impact of vicarious trauma?
I pretended this work didn’t have a cost to me for far too long…Is it possible to do this work and not have it take a toll?
I’ve spent the last seven years working on this question. These are five of my survival strategies in this work, based on my own research and practical application:
I often credit the movie Inside Out for assisting with my visual on this one. I like to think of our brains as a highly developed filing system. I also feel that counsellors need to hone this skill as we juggle multiple emotional responses at one time.
For me, compartmentalization is the ability to contain my emotional response to hearing pain and trauma. I can pay attention to what is going on inside of me as I listen and bear witness, but I am able to mentally file my emotional response while listening to my client. At a later date, I will revisit this emotional file of mine – it may be in supervision or during a dedicated time of self-reflection. Either way, it is acknowledging that my own emotional response is not to be clouded with what’s going on for the client. My response also deserves recognition and may need debriefing on my own time.
2. Find a creative outlet.
Too often people’s views of creativity are limited by their experiences in middle school art class. Finding somewhere that you can let your creativity let loose is a necessity in this work.
While counselling work can obviously be highly creative, I’m talking about a frivolous, colour-outside-any-lines, spontaneous, freeing creativity that exists outside of our work. Find something and somewhere that you can express yourself through art, music, movement, crafts, photography, writing, etc. Expand your thinking in this area and try something new. Let go of judgement and needing to be “good” at whatever you choose – think more about what feels fun and freeing.
3. Create a sense of community.
Find your people, look after them, and connect often. Make sure they are a diverse group – counsellors, non-counsellors, people who are easy to be with, and a few who need some extra grace. Learn from them and invest in their lives deeply.
4. Cultivate meaning.
I think prior to doing this work, you need to have answers to some of the big existential questions. Knowing your purpose and what you think you’re supposed to be doing with your life will keep you grounded.
I no longer care about leaving some big legacy or making a massive difference in the world. It was too much pressure, and really, who did I think I was anyway? If one person’s life is better for me having been in it, I have achieved what I needed to.
5. Cherish your life.
I believe I owe it to Anna Joy to care for myself and live my very best life with whatever days are allotted to me. Taking care of my body physically and mentally is a daily discipline. Some days the mental health part is the hardest. Choosing to talk to myself with compassion and kindness and living in hope and optimism over negativity and worry is so often easier to preach than practice, but it goes a long way in preventing vicarious trauma.
I am so grateful for the privilege of being a counsellor, but I will no longer underestimate the cost of this work. I want to be a counsellor for the long haul, and if I’m going to do that, I need to prioritize myself as a key part of the process, and do what I can to soften the impacts of vicarious trauma.
I’m also so thankful to Anna Joy and the gift she was to me and others in the short time she was here. Her legacy to me is a constant reminder that it’s possible to help others, love them, feel pain and loss deeply, and not let that cost change me negatively.
I need to prioritize myself as a key part of the process, and do what I can to soften the impacts of vicarious trauma.
If you feel inclined, West Coast Kids Cancer Foundation (WCK) is doing a fundraiser in honour of Anna Joy. You can change the impact on kids and families with cancer by helping them reach their goal here. Donating any dollar amount will help WCK reach their target goal of $50,000 (a very generous donor is willing to match all donations up to $50,000).
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