Last week I posted about Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and her work with the Trauma Stewardship Institute, in which she discusses the effects of working in trauma. I have mentioned her in passing many times, but without fully delving into how her work has personally affected me.
This isn’t the first time I have ever spoken about my personal experience in working with trauma; my friends and family know the story well – both the heavy parts and the parts of growth – but I have never had the courage to speak about it publicly. Today, I am ready to share it with you.
I went into working with trauma in a very casual sense; I created Project Unbreakable as an eager nineteen year old photography student without a single thought to how it could affect me… but a few months into my work, my incorrect assumption surfaced: I wasn’t sleeping well, I questioned the intentions of every person I met, I neglected relationships with people important to me, I couldn’t stop talking about work, and if I did stop, I was still thinking about it. Suddenly, it seemed like my entire life became focused on sexual assault. I had turned into someone I didn’t recognize in the mirror, complete with bags under my eyes and disheveled hair.
A few months into my own personal state of disaster, I met Laura and became familiar with her work at the Trauma Stewardship Institute. One of the first things she ever said to me was, “If you want to continue with this work, there are things that you are going to have to change.” While friends and family had hinted that my work was affecting my personal life, Laura was able to describe exactly how working in trauma could affect someone – and she also provided tangible steps to continue my work in a healthy manner, giving me back the hope that I had lost.
I began to give myself the time to reflect on how this project was affecting me. I read Laura’s book, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, and started implementing her beliefs into my life. Instead of starting my day off with emails, I worked out. Instead of allowing my need to control everything take over, I brought others onto my team to help out. Most of all, while leaning on those closest to me, I used their support to search for the strength that was buried deep down inside of me.
It didn’t all happen magically - there wasn’t an immediate shift. It took a long time to get to a point where I felt like myself again. And it took me even longer to build the courage to speak up about it; I had been working so hard to better myself, yet I didn’t realize that keeping silent was hindering not only my personal growth, but the growth of our society and how it deals with secondary trauma. I was doing the opposite of what Project Unbreakable stood for: I was encouraging the silence surrounding the effects of working in trauma. The more I kept silent, the less chance someone else in a similar position would begin their journey – whether they were a social worker, a doctor, a foster parent, or even someone who follows this blog. This issue pertains to everyone who bears witness to suffering, not just an elite few. It is so common that we simply ignore it and continue with our society’s obsession to “keep on keeping on”.
I was lucky I was able to catch what was happening to me incredibly early on in my life. If Laura’s work had never been introduced to me (my full gratitude to Maile Zambuto & Sherisa Dahlgren from the Joyful Heart Foundation), I may have spent the next twenty years in the same state I had been in. But I am not and I never will be again.
I hope this reaches someone who needs it. I hope they read this, take the time to watch the video above, and give themselves the grace to reflect on their well-being. I hope that someday, every person who works in trauma is given the exact tools they need to continue on the very first day they begin.
- Grace Brown, founder of Project Unbreakable
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