"Vicarious traumatization (VT) is a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences. Its hallmark is disrupted spirituality, or a disruption in the trauma workers' perceived meaning and hope. " Wikipedia
He haunts my dreams, my waking moments, as well as those of my staff. We all have been deeply affected by one young man. We have consults on the case almost daily. We discuss and try to figure out how to change a cultural belief that is causing harm to an entire family. We are trying to save someone who doesn't realize they are abused. Someone who believes they are "bad and deserve it".
No one deserves to be doused with cold water at 5 am and then beaten with an electric cord so badly that permanent physical scars cover their arms and legs and torso. Those are the scars we see. What about the invisible ones?
Initially we got the case because the 15 year old smokes marijuana, breaks curfew, won't stay home, and is perhaps, running with a gang. The first time I met him, he walked over and shook my hand. Said "yes maam, no maam" and looked me in the eye. I knew there was a good kid in there and I wondered what had happened that he sought out safety and security in a gang. It didn't make sense at first glance; 2 parents, both employed and educated. A nice home with all the trappings of a solid middle class family. His own room. Enrollment at one of the elite schools. Something didn't add up on the surface.
I wondered what had happened to him.
The next encounter was at the office of the Cabinet: six social workers and a Juvenile Restorative Justice representative, his parents, his brothers and him.
At first the adults talked around and over him. The parents detailing the lies, the theft, the drug use. Finally we asked him to tell us his story. He did. He told of being beaten, being drenched with ice cold water. Of being backed into a corner while his stepfather wailed on him until he was bloody, his skin split and a goose egg lump on his forehead. Then, the stepfather confirmed this was true. Six social workers were shocked into silence. The stepfather went on to state "This isn't abuse, it is discipline. I was raised that way and I am fine. I love my mother." Again, shocked silence. It takes a lot to shock social workers as seasoned as those in that room, but they succeeded.
Now, I understood why on a hot day, this young man wore a long sleeve sweat shirt. Why he distrusted adults. Why he didn't want to go home, used drugs and stole to buy more drugs. I knew why he seemed so detached. I knew and I felt the pain. I ached for him. I kept the professional mask on. My tears would come later. I listened and looked him in the eye as he recounted the incidents. He locked onto me as I sat directly across from him, his eyes boring into mine defiantly, as if to say "believe me, hear me, see me."
And I did.
It is not the first time I went into a dark place with someone. My job and my life, has allowed me access into the inner sanctum of many tortured souls. I have seen and felt the pain of others, both human and animal. I have done the hard things no one else wanted to do. I have seen death face to face, up close and personal. I have held angry crying people, children and adults, letting their grief, anger and pain soak into me as surely as their tears soaked into my shirt. I have seen the effects of cruelty both tangible and intangible and wondered how any human could be so inhumane.
I have doubted the very God that made me. I have doubted that love and peace can be had. I have doubted myself with each encounter, doubted my ability to help another person heal. I have doubted my training and education. I have doubted my own ability to heal the darkness within my own soul.
But I cannot let doubt stop me. I cannot let the pain stop me from my calling. It is more than a duty to do what I do. It is an honor and a privilege to serve others. To be allowed into these dark places. It is a sacred trust. I have broken that trust at times, due to my own fear and weakness. I have turned away because the personal cost was so high. I have found myself in my own darkness at times with no light to guide me out of the abyss.
Yet I seek to transform this vicarious pain into strength, for the greater good. I understand why saints go mad at times. No one can live always in the dark nor the light. Somehow there must be a middle ground, a sanctuary, a respite.
"Beyond vicarious traumatization lies vicarious transformation (VTF). This is the process of transforming one's vicarious trauma, leading to spiritual growth. Vicarious transformation is a process of active engagement with the negative changes that come about through trauma work. It can be recognized by a deepened sense of connection with all living beings, a broader sense of moral inclusion, a greater appreciation of the gifts in one's life, and a greater sense of meaning and hope. Like VT, VTF is a process, not an endpoint or outcome. If the clients’ extraordinary pain can be embraced instead of fended off, humanity is expanded. In this receptive mode, caring can be deepened. The clients feel that they are allowed to exert their influence, and this reciprocal process conveys respect. People can learn from trauma survivor clients that people can endure horrible things and carry on. This knowledge is a gift that can be passed along to others."
I take hope in the power of transformation. I reach out, I make connections with friends, animals, nature to heal myself. I respect the pain. I embrace it, knowing that the channels it digs so deeply in my heart will at some point be channels of love and healing. I try to increase my knowledge and understanding. I seek out the shared consciousness of spiritual leaders through their words and teachings. I try to touch God, in spirit and in the form of others. I see God in the eyes of a scared, beaten 15 year old. I am humbled by the very nature of life. I am honored to be in the darkness with others. I am realizing what my life is, what it is meant to be, is about.
I am transforming.