We were late, an hour late, to reunite with a friend we had met in the back of a Guatemalan bus three years ago. We had been delighted to find out that Roxanne was back at Harvard and was able to squeeze in dinner while we were in town. She had a paper to write. And we were trapped.
When we finally burst through the doors of the restaurant, Roxanne hugged us warmly and nodded at the waiter, who by that point had probably thought that this poor girl was either lying or needed new friends who knew how to read a clock. Aware of our short time together, we plunged into conversation.
Roxanne filled us in on the last few years of her life, part of which was spent in Jerusalem. She has made her home in many conflict zones, and has helped women in hostile regions all around the world. Partway through our conversation, which meandered along endless rabbit trails of life changing stories, we began to talk about the secondhand effects of suffering. I told her about how exhausted we were after each time we interviewed a victim of sex trafficking. It was a new type of weariness I had never experienced before, and I couldn’t quite express how I felt.
Roxanne nodded and asked, “Michelle have you ever heard of compassion fatigue?”
She went on to explain that while the other field workers would be called to fix a broken pipe, she – as the gender and conflict point person – would be called to deal with a group of women who had just been raped. A caseload of broken pipes doesn’t exactly impact you in the same way. Dealing with these types of scenarios on a daily basis has a profound effect on a person.
Fast forward to this past weekend. We were at a friend’s birthday party, and towards the end of the night we shared some of our recent experiences while filming our documentary on prostitution and sex trafficking. As we spoke, one of the girls was quiet, seemingly uninterested. She suddenly entered the conversation in full force, and her thoughts tumbled out in waves mixed with tears, and anger, and utter frustration.
We found out that she is a social worker, and every day walks with people through their suffering. She witnesses mothers selling their bodies to buy food for their children, and children being taken away from their parents, and the debilitating effect of poverty, and the horrific treatment of Aboriginal people here in Canada. It quickly turned from a conversation to a session of soul-care, in which this tired and brave young woman spilled everything she had been holding in for so long.
And Roxanne’s words rang in my ears, “Michelle, have you ever heard of compassion fatigue?”
Compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary traumatic stress – these are words I had never heard before. When humanitarian workers, war zone journalists, social workers, and human rights advocates dedicate their lives to serving those who are suffering, there is inevitably some rub-off.
After a heavy week of victim interviews and research in Amsterdam last fall, Jay and I went to a carnival in the city. I felt like I was coming up for air. I remember forcing myself to calm down and not assume that every guy around me was a loverboy luring a young girl into prostitution. I ate a waffle and enjoyed it. I went on a ride and laughed at how fast we were going. Many of our Berlin interviews cancelled the following week, permitting us to have a week of rest.
For the first time in my life, I realized I had come dangerously close to compassion fatigue, or at least some aspects of it. I just didn’t know there was a word for what I was experiencing. At first I felt silly admitting it – feeling I did not have justification since I had only listened to victim stories, while social workers and volunteers poured their lives to building relationships in these hostile environments on a daily basis. But no one is immune.
According to the Headington Institute, if you or someone you know is dealing with any of the following symptoms, it might be signs of vicarious trauma:
- Difficulty managing your emotions
- Difficulty accepting or feeling okay about yourself
- Difficulty making good decisions
- Problems managing the boundaries between yourself and others (e.g., taking on too much responsibility, having difficulty leaving work at the end of the day, trying to step in and control other’s lives
- Problems in relationships
- Physical problems such as aches & pains, illnesses, accidents
- Difficulty feeling connected to what’s going on around and within you
- Loss of meaning and hope
To deal with this, there are three things you can start with:
Getting away from it all, physically or mentally (books or films, taking a day or a week off, talking to friends about things other than work).
Having no goal or time-line, or doing things you find relaxing (lying on the grass watching the clouds, sipping a cup of tea, taking a nap, getting a massage).
Engaging in activities that make you laugh or lighten your spirits (sharing funny stories with a friend, playing with a child, being creative, being physically active).
As we parted ways with Roxanne, I was reminded of the importance of friendship. We need each other because the world needs us, and having someone in your life identify warning signs is truly a gift. Let’s take time to rest, play, and pray on a regular basis, so that we do not grow weary of doing good.