When the work gets hard: a personal reflection

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Sometimes… this all becomes a bit much.

Working in healthcare, we ‘enjoy the benefit’, so to speak, of desensitization. This is a good thing in that it lets us come back to work each day without every patient’s illness or situation negatively affecting us psychologically. We can compartmentalize in a way that lets us witness some pretty sad and tragic things without being destroyed by them. (Well… most of the time.)

This doesn’t mean we’re infallible. Most of us still walk around with a bit of vicarious trauma brimming below the surface. Each person has their own way dealing with that. Or, if you’re like me, your own way of stuffing that down deeply enough that you can keep going back to work.

(P.S. Don’t try that at home, kids, it can get ugly.)

The unfortunate side effect of this desensitization is the casualness with which we might approach a patient relationship, disconnecting from the emotional significance of diagnosis, treatment, or prognosis conversation with a patient or their family. Our demeanor then comes across as uncaring or dismissive, creating further hurt for the patient or the family member we discuss these things with. Our own psychological self-preservation, though it doesn’t mean we don’t care, leads to us seeming as though we are uncaring. We know we are not uncaring, but do they?

Recent violence filling media and social media hits hard

On December 14, 2012, my kids were in kindergarten and 1st grades. At this time, I was a full-time student in my junior year of a nursing program. I was also a classroom mom for both of my kids and junior rep of our student nurses association. I guess you could say I was no stranger to stress, and this particular day was the last day of the semester, though we’d finished coursework before that.

If you know why this date is familiar, or you’re wondering why this date sounds familiar, this was the date of the Sandy Hook shooting. One week later, Dec. 21st, I was in the elementary school for Christmas parties. As I was in the kindergarten room, we took a moment of silence. Suddenly it hit me what had happened the week before, and as I soaked in the joy of kindergarten and 1st grade all day, I had to take a couple of moments away from the students. It was a hard day feeling crushed by the sadness of it all.

Collage of the children and adults who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School

Somewhere in the depths of me, I still feel that day. It’s not a thing that lingers and hurts me actively, but there are moments when Sandy Hook fills the media that that sadness creeps back in. My now rising 7th and 8th graders remind me the children who died that day would also be rising 7th and 8th graders. I think this just felt so close to home.

With every recent mass shooting, the topic of the Sandy Hook mass shooting hits social media pretty hard. Each shooting is, of course, its own tragedy with its own emotions, but then with them, Sandy Hook also fills my heart. Last weekend’s shootings were no different. My soul, if you believe in such a thing, feels heavy.

What does this have to do with workplace violence?

There are times when I have had to step back from our work at Silent No More. I don’t leave completely, but I don’t surface publicly for a little bit. Our board members remain in constant contact with me, and actively I do check in with them. Doing more than that, though, can be overwhelming.

Why is that? Well…

You know that feeling of desensitization we feel in direct care? It doesn’t happen in workplace violence advocacy. Maybe it is just me, but it really gets overwhelming at times. Being so deeply immersed in violence advocacy, events, and education leaves this piece of me always open to feeling the hurt and trauma that others continually face.

Self-care is mandatory in this work. I want to help people move through their post-assault recovery, and I will never stop doing that. If I’m going to be doing that, though, sometimes I have to step back for a few days, or a week or two. In this current brief pause I’ve taken, the two mass shootings a week ago really nudged me toward that overwhelmed space a little, and I’ve needed a step back to make sure I don’t go too far down that road.

Thankfully, this has been an exceedingly busy week, which has made my need for time away a bit less than usual. I started feeling myself ready to come back already yesterday, and I really didn’t pull back as far as I normally do when I have these moments.

These little earthquakes

The heart of it all…

I have chosen this area of work because I have passion for it, but it does get overwhelming to immerse myself in violence topics all day, every day. This, in no way, has lessened my passion or my commitment for this work. Regardless of my need for a step back at times, I am and will always be available for members when violence lands in their lives. Workplace violence has been a special topic to me since years before Silent No More was even a thought in my mind.

This is a mission I will continue until the work is done. Unfortunately, I fear this mission will never be completely done, at least not in my lifetime. Even with legislation and thorough education delivered to every single healthcare worker and administration, we know we can’t prevent every assault from ever happening. Post assault care will still be part of this work, even if and when every single employer does everything right. I’ll never stop working toward our goals.

So if (when?) you notice I’m not around as much, chances are this is why. Never hesitate, though, to get in touch. Regardless of my absence, I still want to help.

I share this with you today because I think it’s important to admit when we have struggles. I think it is important to share that violence is a topic I struggle with, too, and that self-care is a priority. It’s okay to pause and take care of yourself. You should pause when you feel your mental health is affected by the work we are doing.

This is really hard work. You may find that, like me, you never are desensitized to it. That is okay. That is normal. Take a time out. We’ll be here when you get back.

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