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Secondary Trauma

Posted on 31 Jul | 0 comments
Secondary Trauma

I am tired, and I am sad. I am weary, and I am angry. I am confused, and I want clarity. Weeks of drama, tragedy, and loss have created an overwhelming sense of anxiety, fear, and bewilderment. Weeks of dealing with aging parents with serious medical issues, a flailing therapy practice, a destructive wildfire, a senseless shooting rampage, and now the death of a loved young man leave me drained, distracted, and feeling desperate.

The impact is a diminishing ability to focus and concentrate, loss of sleep, and a depressed affect. I sit in sessions with my clients and struggle with feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Staying in the moment feels as though I am sleeping in a casket, and looking to the future brings me to the edge of an immense abyss. This is not the first time I have experienced these emotions, but it has been some time since the last episode and this time it has a different feel—one I am having trouble getting my hands on.

What brought me to this moment of despair was the news my daughter received just a couple of days ago … news that her best friend's husband had been killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan. Like an out-of-control descending curtain on a stage of performers, this last event crushed my soil, and stole my perspective. The preeminent question on my mind today is, “What does it matter?”

If people lose their senses, as they grow older, what does it matter? If a fire can become so outrageous and consume a home in a matter of minutes, what does it matter? If innocent, gracious people are killed or maimed in seconds, what does it matter? If a young, recently married father of a one-year-old child can die in a war with no cause, what does it matter? What does it matter if my fledgling practice makes it or not?

Kierkegaard referred to this as “the nothingness of existence,” or as Becker said, “No one is free from the fear of death.” An ancient Hebrew philosopher called this moment “striving after nothingness.”

In writing this piece, I tried being philosophical concerning my current experience. I tried a spiritual perspective. I tried writing in the third person, as well as writing from a more removed, objective approach. Each of those attempts left me feeling greater emptiness, desperation, and disconnection. I have listened to wise people talk about secondary trauma, and its effects on one’s personal and professional life, with no personal sharing about his or individual experience. I have even witnessed, from a distance, a mentor’s experience of secondary trauma, but it was never discussed.

I have an inkling I will emerge from this moment in time, perhaps with even greater insight and perspective … but maybe not. There are no guarantees. I am certain this moment will take me to deeper levels of myself, my understanding of my finiteness, and maybe even clarify my personal sense of purpose and meaning for living.

However, what would be most helpful would be to talk with others about their experiences with secondary trauma. To hear how they have coped, and used the experience to move through the lethargy and angst of this moment. As professionals, we are very good at talking about theory, our knowledge, our intellectual perspective; but we seem very poor at sharing our own pain, our ‘personal’ experience as a therapist. Perhaps, this unwillingness to speak of our own suffering and ache is an expression of our personal fear of death, of our limitedness, and finitude.

As awareness of the violence and hostility in our world, in our culture and society, as well as in our communities grows, maybe it is time to create an avenue or a group of avenues that offer support, encouragement, and care for mental health professionals. Possibly, this is a moment when psychology professionals can model the priorities, values, and behaviors we so often tell our clients to utilize. Conceivably, such modeling might lead to healthier professionals, healthier clients … and just maybe a better health care system.

-- Steve Fehl

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