I have this ongoing story that I often tell folks when we’re training a new set of recruits. I tell them the story because we are teaching about trauma and how it can change you in subtle ways you don’t necessarily recognize right off the bat.
I’ve been in this field for 27 years (isn’t that crazy?!?). Some days it seems like I just started and other days it feels like I’ve been here forever. I couldn’t even begin to count the amount of stories I’ve heard. I hardly remember the details of anything. I think it’s a bit of a self-preservation thing but to me, it seems like stuff just rolls off and out of my brain after a little while and I just keep on going.
Until one day I was watching a movie. In the movie, Arnold was searching for Sarah and killing everyone with the name Sarah Connor (remember that one? It was the first one of the series). I had seen it before and I like the Terminator movies so no big deal. Until it came to this one scene where Arnold was walking towards one of the Sarah’s after shooting her. She was trying to get away from him and he was walking towards her to finish off the job.
The scene that I watched was almost exactly the perfect, visual reenactment of someone’s story that I had heard. It was a story I didn’t think about before and in fact, hadn’t thought about in a long time. If you had asked me, I would have said that the story was ‘gone’ like the rest of them. But it wasn’t really because it came back in that moment.
I had to leave the room. I never did watch the rest of the movie. I don’t really enjoy them the same way anymore. In fact, for the longest time, I wouldn’t watch a movie unless it was so far from reality or a guaranteed PG type of thing out of fear that something like that would happen again. At first I just ignored the issue – I don’t need to watch movies! But really, that’s not necessarily healthy either. I’m good now but truth be told, I’m still quite cautious with movies. Partly because I just don’t want to risk something happening again (seriously, there are thousands of stories floating around that brain!!) and partly because I want my entertainment to entertain me, not stress me out.
My exposure to traumatic events has changed me. It’s not a bad thing, or a good thing even, it just is. But like all things trauma related, it’s my job to understand it and take care of myself in way that allows me to manage it.
What I’ve described is called Secondary Trauma or Vicarious Trauma. It’s what happens to a person’s brain when they are exposed to traumatic events through someone else’s trauma – often through the telling of their stories or the act of supporting them throughout their journey. Counselors, teachers, emergency responders including victim service responders, police, fire and paramedic, emergency room doctors and nurses and anyone involved with military, navy and airforce personnel are subjected to traumatic events through other people and are likely traumatized in some way, shape or form as a result of that exposure.
Add to that list, anyone who listens and provides on-going support to a family or friend who is going through a domestic violent situation or going through something like a sexual assault trial. It leaves its mark.
Trauma has the power to change the wiring of our brain. It also has the power to help us look at our lives differently, and not necessarily in a bad way. I was recently asked how I can be so positive all the time when I deal with stuff that really isn’t positive at all (seriously, some of it just sucks). The reality is that my exposure to all of this is what helps me to stay positive. I have chosen to look at the world in a different way than I did before and with that I see the potential and the possibilities and all the good things that are out there. Ultimately, it is about taking care of ourselves and making choices, including choices around how we view the world and those around us and seeing all the “bad” things has certainly helped me to see all the “good” things too.