Monday, April 02, 2012


I've missed blogging, more than I even knew myself, and I blamed a lot of things, like the relative ease of Facebook, and the crammed-upness of my calendar, and the dwindling hours in a day (they are getting fewer, aren't they? It can't just be me.) But the thing that I don't blame it on is my work, though I strongly suspect it is the main culprit.

I'm not supposed to complain about my work because when I went to school to be a therapist, we all said words like "rewarding" and "fulfilling" and "it's not about money" with stars in our eyes, but we meant them. I meant it.

And during the first years of my career, starting up, cutting my teeth, hearing stories and giving people direction even when I felt like a kid in a grownup suit, I still meant it. I meant it even more. I felt like I was really helping people. The first time you go home knowing you have categorically saved someone's life, that they are alive at this moment because of you, it's a pretty flush feeling. Your adrenaline gets going in those moments; you push aside your panic, the doubts you may have in your own capabilities, you crash through the outer limits of your physical and mental self, and somehow you become more. You become a bigger, stronger person than you actually are. It is exhausting but you cannot fail, to fail would be unthinkable, so you don't, you win, you win at any cost. When the situation resolves itself, you deflate in a slow whoooooosh, I've actually felt like someone was letting the air out of me while simultaneously draining the colour out of the world and the energy out of the room. But you live for this shaky sense of euphoria and relief and you go home proud.

While I'm technically a self-employed counsellor, I have worked for the past 4 years on a government contract. I work with a specific segment of the population that has experienced severe childhood trauma. I am a crisis counsellor. These are not clients with daddy issues or low self esteem. Every day, I deal with crises. Every day I listen to horrific stories, stories that have made me spend my breaks crying in bathroom stalls and my nights wide awake, afraid of what I might dream. Every day if it's not the 87 year old woman who is sobbing recounting being raped at the age of 6, savagely, repeatedly, then tortured, the left without a family to raise her, then trapped in an abusive marriage as she watched her children be taken away by social services until the day her husband died, leaving her penniless and homeless in her old, crippled age, then it's someone else with a different but equally soul-destroying story and they're looking to me for help. How can they live with this?

That's a question I don't always feel comfortable answering. Sometimes I really don't know. But I value life, and I value healing, and I believe that it can be done.

When I started this job four years ago, I believed that I could save them. Now I'm not sure that I can even save myself. I feel dead inside. Sometimes I get home at midnight and sit in the bath with a bottle of wine and the tears won't even come. I watch the clock because I know I'll have to be up in just a couple of hours to do it all over again. Crises don't hit Monday-Friday, 9-5. Suicides are not a business-hours business.

I feel like a fraud. I feel like no matter how many dragons I slay today, tomorrow there will just be a new herd of them, fiery and relentless.

It's called secondary trauma. I know this. When you're a front line worker getting assaulted by every graphic detail, it saturates you. It becomes you. I am not a rock. I am good at my job because I am sensitive. But how many stories of sodomy and starvation can one person hear? Whatever that number is, I think I reached it awhile back. They are sitting inside of me, like poison. I am rotting.

When you start out, you're all gung-ho about "self-care" , the stuff a therapist does for herself, on behalf of her own sanity. The things that put the spring back in your step. But the ghosts of your clients will follow you home. The sound of draino being gulped, a noose being thrown around a beam, the chair tipping back, the gun hitting the table, the heavy breathing of someone who's just cut into themselves. It's haunting. Saving on person's life feels great. Saving many ...

I don't know.
I don't know anymore.
I don't have words.
And so, I do not write.
A wordless writer,
a novel-less novelist,
a ghost of my former self.


Jeannie said...

Oh babe - We know there are people out there doing awful things to other people - but to hear the details from fresh faces day after day for years must drag you so far down. I couldn't last a week before I bought a gun, took target practice and became a vigilante assassin.

Thanks for being there for those folks but you won't be much help if you don't get some relief. Pause your contract, sub-contract or switch up with an accredited replacement if you can find one.

You need to be filled up again but I wish I knew how or where or what. Good stuff tends to sound trite and idealistic when you know the dirty truth about how bad the human race can be. But there are good people out there too - not 100% good - but good enough to love and hug - find them and ask for some good news.

JMH said...

Damn, that sounds awful. Probably not something that's going to be fixed by stuffed peppers with feta. But it's good to hear from you again, and if you continue to write, I'll continue to read.

Julia said...

When we discuss 'coping skills' in the helping profession, it really can be trite if it isn't complemented by on the job / structural support and relief plans. I've been in these worlds, and I recognise everything you described. The huge impact of your role, how it reinforces the idea that we have to keep doing the work, even when the work is eating away at our soul. After I came back from my last field posting, I found myself still in shock. It led to some interesting times, like when I started screaming at anti-abortion protesters about the women that die in countries without safe abortions. I actually lost control of myself and had strangers come to my aid. I just could not cope with what I knew was happening in the world.

Do I have a great suggestion? No. Besides, it really sounds like you need a break. In our work, we need to level out sometimes. We need to refill our bucket. That is also from the coping workshops, but its true. I've watched people refuse to step out of the tornadoes because they are too caught up in their responsibilities, and unless those people eventually realise that they are a better 'helper' when they are healthy, they just stick it out until they are broken. Don't let it break you.

People sometimes start talking in front of me, saying things like 'how do you do a normal job after knowing about the world'. What really taught me that I have to work those ebbs and flows, was when I finally understood what so many people who were suffering were telling me. All that they wanted was to live a good life. To be loved. To love their family. To have food, and shelter and safety. They did not want to stay in this suffering. They did not aspire to huge megalomaniac aspirations. They wanted what I was surrounded by. I had to learn to let myself love what I had. I had to believe I could enjoy my life and not only be in service to others.

I'm ranting way too much here. But I adore you. And I want you to be able to enjoy the love around you. And I finally get why my family said the things to me that they did. Take care of yourself.

Sultan said...

Have you read psychologist Sheldon Kopp's book, "If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients."

Mark said...

Sorry that you have to go through such haunting experiences to write such beautiful posts.

Martini said...

Slaying dragons - it's life. There will always be dragons. If you could defeat them all, there'd be nothing left and your life would have no purpose. So keep slaying. Continue to have a purpose. Even if you don't get direct recognition, everyone knows you're helping. Maybe if every crisis counsellor quit and you saw the devastation, you'd find your love of helping rekindled. Maybe all you need is a holiday. I've noticed that when I'm away from work for an extended period, and I see/hear about the mistakes being made in my absense, I'm DYING to get back and make things right again.

At the very least, your work gives you amazing stories to tell.

kenju said...

A professor I had in college advised me not to become a social worker, for the very reasons you name. But you must remember, you are doing good - even if it doesn't look like headway is being made. I hope you will find that writing is therapeutic for you, since I miss your posts so much.

Travis Cody said...

I wish I had words to respond. I don't. I don't know how you find the words for yourself. I can't imagine what you hear every day.

Be as well as you can be.

janjan0000 said...

I can't even imagine, and have no helpful words.
But ... writing can be cathartic ... no?
Hugs to you xoxo said...

I agree with jeannie. If there werent people out there like you that can do this job these people wouldnt still be here. They have a measure of how life is suppose to be. You are probably great at your job. Just like I wish to be great at my job some day in the next few years after I finish college in Sept of 2013.

BBC said...

I'm not supposed to complain about my work because when I went to school to be a therapist,

Hahahahaha, that cracks me up. Many years ago I went to see one, after a few months she wanted to screw me.

You're all a bunch of nut cases.

BBC said...

All is lost, just making enough to drink to the end is all that matters.

Vest said...

BBC You are an insipid dirty old geezer and should be put down.

Oh great One said...

You need to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help your neighbor. Perhaps you need a break. A different avenue of your profession? Take care.

Vest said...

It is easy to write something of interest , simply look out of your window, there you have the start to your story, many different views to start from.Inject into your view people real or imaginary - what they are doing , why is that dog barking, something sinister perhaps, get your imagination working overtime. A police siren indicates you could be looking at the suspect you see running from the house across the road after you hear a blood curdling scream.... well it's a start now finish it.

Jay Noel said...

I'd love for you to start blogging again. I pretty much hit "reset" on mine. There's not many of us left in the blogosphere.

I hope you're doing well, and I miss your witty and real posts.

Take care girl!

Jay Noel, aka. The Phoenix (Where Science is stranger than fiction)

Jim McQuiggin said...

I know a little about where you're coming from and that's why I quit being a therapist to become a journalist and columnist at a newspaper. I'm glad I made the trade. Even though I had plenty of clients tell me that I'd made a difference in their lives (it just happened a couple of weeks ago, a client I hadn't seen in FIVE YEARS), my heart told me I needed to do something else.

I don't know if that's your path but whatever that is, I trust you'll travel it well.

I quit blogging in 2010 mostly because of my job, writing all day and then... but I just picked it up again. Not like the old days, certainly.

Anyway, it's over at and somewhat different from what I used to do... hope to see you!

A said...

I hope you're well, Jay.

jeanie said...

Hey there Jay - sending you a hug or two.

kenju said...

I miss you. Hope all is better than it was in this post.

ergo said...

Hi Jay, nice to know that you are still around. With time I'm sure the words will come. In the meantime, take care.