Thursday, July 1, 2010

Secondary trauma at work

**Trigger warning**

I want to talk about something that's been on my mind. It's something I get the impression we aren't supposed to talk about as lawyers*, advocates, professionals. I want to talk about secondary trauma, the negative emotional affect that hearing the traumatic accounts from clents can have on us, the listeners. Except, I'm not going to talk about "us" because I can really only talk about "me."

Me...I've been coping with some residual discomfort in my life lately as a result of the tales being recounted to me by my clients. I remember a similar feeling from when I worked at the 1-hour photo shop when I first got out of college, and occasionally the DFS would bring rolls of films to be developed so the pictures could be used as evidence in parental termination hearings. It's a little different here, though. I'm supposed to be unaffected. As a lawyer we are zealous advocates and guardians of the law. We analyze and deliver. We take raw facts and forge them into powerful arguments. We don't let ourselves be phased by the reality of the situations. Do we? Oops... I switched back to "we" again.

"Do what you need to do," the mafiioso speaks calmly into the cell phone. "If you cooperate, everything will be just fine. You know we'll have to do our job if you don't follow our instructions. You can only imagine what will happen to your daughter." The man gathers his wife and kids, hitches the first flight to the United States, goes straight to customs and asks for his family to be taken into custody.

"Keep screaming, it turns me on." And then later, "That bastard baby in your belly is not mine. If you don't abort him, I'll do it myself."

"Did they kill many people?" A pause. A translation. A nod. "They shot them?" Translation again. Words exchanged in another language. A finger drawn across a throat. "They cut off their heads?" A pause. A translation. A nod. A hand covering eyes.

I told a new client I was going to send her an appointment card today. The panic in her voice when she said, "No, no, no! Don't send me anything, he inspects everything! Here, I'll write it down," it was unmistakable.

I just...I don't know what to do with these feelings. Nobody at work appears affected. And most of the time, I'm not either. When I'm actually sitting there with a client taking an affidavit, or translating, or reading a case file, I'm not in tears and I'm not indignant. I'm not stone-faced either. I thing I'm pretty okay at being sympathetic and respectful of survivors of trauma. I try (emphasis on "try") to treat others the way I would want to / have wanted to be treated. I try to keep a little distance, acknowledging the difficulties and strong feelings that come up, without reacting to them personally. I'm really not a basketcase at work.

But I've noticed that I find myself thinking about these stories in those pockets of time that I'm alone and undistracted...riding the bus, falling asleep, in the shower. Not constantly, but enough to know it's affecting me. I don't understand why I never hear the attorneys I sit in with say to their clients, "I'm sorry you went through that." We're not counselors (aside from legal counselors), I get it. But is it a distancing technique for the emotional health of the lawyer? I don't want to not be cognizant of the humanness of my [future] clients. I don't want to see one story after another and have them bleed together until it's all just a blur. At the same time, I need to know where to draw the line and protect the integrity of the client-atty. relationship and my own emotional health.

I guess I'm not going anywhere with this post. I just want to get it down on record that this is something I'm thinking about and learning about right now. I'm curious to see how my thoughts and feelings on this evolve as I become more experienced in this profession.

* Okay, I get that I'm not a lawyer yet. But I'm getting closer. And no, the clients aren't MINE-mine. But they're my responsibility while I'm at my internship, which is close enough for these purposes. I feel like a tween getting close to her 13th birthday and reading Seventeen magazine.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing! I felt the same way when I was studying criminal law and realised that I actually wouldn't be able to practise criminal law as just reading cases was leaving me emotionally drained.

Anonymous said...

That's a tough one! I can't imagine working on issues like that, and really respect the people who do. I imagine your coworkers don't appear phased because they've just seen and heard so much that they've developed a thick skin. I'm sure the worst cases get to them in their quiet moments, too, though.