Thursday, July 19, 2012

On Vicarious Trauma

So most of you know I was a rape victim advocate in hospital ERs for almost ten years. That's a long time to be an advocate. There's a high level of burn-out with advocates who are essentially alone in ERs, serving on the front lines for people who have just had something horrible happen to them.

One of the things that we talked a lot about during that time was vicarious trauma. Basically, this is when the stories that you hear impact you deeply and you experience trauma yourself as a result. I think all of us experience this in one way or another during every day living. You hear things or people tell you things and it hits you very hard. With rape victim advocates, what makes this more difficult is that there's no distancing yourself from these victims. You don't just hear one story, you hear stories over and over again. With people who work with trauma victims every day, this is particularly grueling.

My friend Ally works with torture survivors. She has for almost twenty years. This is incredible to me because I can only imagine the amount of vicarious trauma she must have experienced. Ally doesn't watch sad movies. When I asked her about it once, she said, "It's just too much. I can't have all those feelings after work as well." Ally would also be the first to talk about how amazing the people that she works with are, how positive and resilient. I wish everyone could know Ally. She's amazing and formidable.

When I attended the survivor's testimonial writing workshop, it was pretty intense. Two days of survivor stories. Lots of vicarious trauma. And part of why I wrote TRAINWRECK was to be able to put those feelings somewhere.

But I didn't realize that writing this book would open another door. In telling this story and in being very outspoken about the issue of sexual assault, I have had so many people talk to me about their own stories. So many people coming forward with their truths. This is such a huge act of bravery and I feel so absolutely blessed to be the recipient of these gifts. I know how hard it is to tell your story and the fact that people are willing to tell me either publicly or privately their experiences makes me realize how glad I am that I wrote this book. Because if nothing else, this book was meant to open the door to people telling the truth about sexual assault. To let other people know that this can and does happen. To create change about how we discuss this issue. That there's really no such thing as a "good" rape victim.

There's a very good reason for rape shield laws. Survivors should be protected from having to tell their stories publicly. But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be allowed to tell them in their own words if they want to. When we don't give people the chance to tell their truth, we silence them. We distance ourselves from the issue and make it about "them" instead of about "us."

You should read this post by Steph Campbell. It is all the reasons that I wrote this book.

And yes, this unexpected outpouring of people's stories has affected me. Parts of my heart crack open every time someone tells me what horrible thing happened to them. And yes, I'm not watching a lot of sad movies lately. I cry more than I have in a long time. I have to work very hard on self-care. But these stories are also incredibly healing. This choir of voices inside me makes me feel like we're getting closer to things getting better. That maybe by speaking out, we're inching closer to people reporting rape more, we're inching closer to changing the way that the media talks about this issue, we're inching closer to this not being a thing that happens to other people or just one person's problem.

So I'm grateful for every story I hear. I'm grateful people trust me with them. I'm grateful that people who have never spoken up before are now doing so. I hope that my book can continue that dialogue. At the very least, I hope my book makes people realize they aren't alone.


17 comments:

Melissa Sarno said...

Great post, Christa. Trainwreck sounds like an important book, one I can't wait to read and expose to others.

And you say it all here: "When we don't give people the chance to tell their truth, we silence them. We distance ourselves from the issue and make it about "them" instead of about "us."" So true.

KO: The Insect Collector said...

What I want to say feels like not enough.

You shine a light, Christa, and that is powerful.

I'm so glad you're doing what you do.

Emily R. King said...

You're amazing, Christa. What else is there to say?

Oh, I know. How about, THANK YOU!

Roxanne Galpin said...

This story is such an important one. Light must be shed on these secrets ... they must not be secrets anymore ...

Jolene Perry said...

I wrote Joy because a five year old was killed in a fire. I know since you've read Joy that it might not make sense, but let me say that it was probably better for his life to end than for it to continue on the way it was.
Joy's life in that horrible kind of situation lasted a lot longer, but I had to write a happy ending for that person because every time I step into my daughter's school I see the bench dedicated to the boy who died, and I cry a little.
(my husband prosecuted that case, which also made me feel a little better)

You are amazing and brave and all those good things.

Brinda said...

I can't imagine the emotions that must press on a survivor. I'm glad you will be able to share you book with so many.

erica and christy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
erica and christy said...

*previous comment deleted because I can't spell*

I have a million words I'd like to say. "Wow" is only one of them, but the one I'm able to utter right now. My life is better for knowing you, Christa. Write on.
erica

Medeia Sharif said...

My eyes are rarely dry when people are sharing their stories of trauma with me. Sometimes I feel haunted for days. It's so important to know what's going on in the world and with the people around us. By honoring their pain and their stories we make things better for them as well as other survivors, and we work towards awareness and prevention of violence.

Elodie said...

Sometimes, I don´t have anything to say after I read your posts, I just want to reach through the interwebs and give you a hug! <3

Elodie said...

Oh and be aware as I probably mentioned before, my hugs may be awkward :D <3 You. Rock.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Thank you for being you, Christa! You are brave and brilliant and compassionate. I'm so thankful you're my friend! <3

Heather said...

I had no idea about vicarious trauma. Wow. It explains so much about why people in my line of work (corrections) get burned out, commit suicide, and die right after retirement. Thank you for this, you've opened my eyes.

Katie said...

Trainwreck sounds like a great book, and I can't wait to read it. On an old post of yours, I saw that you thought it was too short to be published. How short is it? I've finished a first draft, and I feel like it is too short.

Peggy Eddleman said...

You're amazing, Christa! And holy cow, so is Ally. I'm so glad there are people like the two of you in the world!

ally said...

Christa- I just read this because I realized I was missing your blog- like Bruce, I particularly like the funny mom "fail" posts (and probably because of v.t.) Very sweet of you to mention me and great to talk about the bigger issue of vicarious trauma/secondary trauma/soul sorrow. there's a great book I've been using for training that has the funniest secondary trauma cartoons in it called "Trauma Stewardship." I highly recommend it. that you leapt into the fire with your book in a way that forced you, i imagine, to feel the feelings in a very embodied/visceral way is a mighty brave thing I don't think I have the capacity to do. hats off to you.

Deana said...

Once again I'm touched by your words. Your heart is so big it doesn't surprise me at all that people find comfort in sharing their stories with you. Thanks for being that person:)