We learn as social workers to express empathy and compassion, to “go there” with our clients, to support them where they are. But we have to be present, keep going, see the next client. And appointments are always about the client, anything I say about myself can’t overshadow or be detrimental for the client’s treatment.
But you know what? Vicarious trauma is an asshole. It’s impossible to hear people’s stories and not be affected. To not take it home, have nightmares, feel down. It’s also impossible for me to always have a one sided conversation. Brene’s talk about connection and authenticity means that every now and then I will say something personal. And gasp- it creates a closer connection with that client.
This is not what I want to talk about. I also don’t want to talk about suicide. But it seems like suicide and self harm are an encompassing topic for many that come to intake. That makes sense. But it’s very hard to hear and type about suicide without feeling like a machine. A risk assessment beast!
This past week a teenager spoke in short sentences about her thoughts of dying and cutting. Mom started crying. The teen started crying. She kept looking at mom, seeing the pain and sadness, the pain caused by the teen. I didn’t see shame, but curiosity. An observation that while she’s being truthful, her truth is causing Mom’s pain. Mom was great, she told teenager she wants her to be honest and she isn’t upset with her. Then I started crying, and all I could say was- “I’m going to cry now too.” A few tears. I felt sad. I was struck by the emotion and relationship I witnessed in front of me.
Why this moment, instead of other clients? Here’s my theory.
My dad told me once that one of the worst things a parent can experience is answering the phone and hearing your child crying. I’ve been guilty of that. I’ve called my parents after breakups. I’ve called late at night when I feel sad, lonely, isolated. They might not say all the right things, or be able to read my mind when I don’t express myself in words, but I know they will answer and listen. (that is until my mom says she needs to watch the end of her tv show). The feeling of unconditional love is so different than other emotions. It has the power to change a relationship.
I think I had tears when witnessing this interaction, because I could see Mom’s love for her daughter. It triggered me to think of how parents are always on my side, cheering for me. I imagine they would also experience grief and sadness if I admitted to the thoughts this teen has. They wouldn’t brush me off, they wouldn’t minimize my emotions.
But, they don’t pay me to cry at clients. So, now that I’ve trauma-vomited this story, it’s time to heal and move forward.