Written by Khristina O’Connor, Second Life of Chattanooga Volunteer
My preface is that this article is intended for you—the volunteer, the educated, the willing to respond—the one who said, “yes, I will help.” I am thrilled to hear that you are willing to aid in the fight against human trafficking! But first, I want you to know—as you might have already discovered—sex slavery is a solemn issue. So before you take your journey toward action, read this—because it might help you cope with everything you have learned, and are about to learn.
No one likes to hear bad news. I get annoyed with television news stations that only seem to report on the things in the world that are going wrong. But that is the unfortunate reality of the world we live in. Bad things happen. From stubbing your toe to getting into a car accident, the risk level increases for you to encounter misfortune from the moment you get out of bed in the morning.
That was a very pessimistic opening—and pessimism is not really a quality I favor. I am an optimist—the polar opposite—however, pain and grief are very difficult topics to be optimistic about. Coming from a counselor’s perspective, one helpful suggestion to make an optimistic spin on a negative situation is to use a different perspective. In order to get that perspective, we will consider Hansen’s disease, or as it is more commonly referred to, leprosy.
Caused by the bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae, leprosy has two common forms—tuberculoid (a form that is really bad) and lepromatous (the form that is significantly worse). Both forms cause skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness that progress over time if the disease goes untreated. Skin lesions are the first sign of leprosy, and each skin lesion makes the affected area numb to the touch. Leprosy attacks and kills the nervous system; therefore people who have leprosy become numb to any sensation, including pain. Oftentimes, patients with leprosy will literally lose limbs because they do not realize they are cutting, scraping, or scouring them off. Pain sensors protect us from damaging our limbs and other body parts. People who have leprosy cannot feel pain, so they do not notice when they are damaging their bodies. This is the distinguishing side effect of leprosy.
The purpose of pain is to protect our bodies. Pain sensors, when activated, send signals to the brain to stop the action we are carrying out in order to prevent serious damage. Physical pain is easy to understand. If you walk into the wall and hit your nose, it will hurt; so logically, you stop walking into the wall. Emotional pain is more difficult to understand. Our brain has emotional pain sensors that are more intricate. We have the small voice inside of us—our conscience—that tells us when we are in a bad situation. And we have negative emotional responses to events and circumstances that are bad for our safety and mental health. Because other internal emotions or external environmental factors may cause numbness to both our conscience and negative emotional responses, we find ourselves making mistakes, misjudgments of character, and in situations which cause us pain. Sometimes a negative emotional response, such as grief, anger, or shock will not surface until the action that caused it has been processed. It is like walking into the emotional wall over, and over, and over again, until you realize, “Oh; that hurt. Maybe I should stop.” Sometimes we cannot calculate when to stop exposing ourselves to something that causes emotional pain because we stay in denial or metaphorically sweep our emotions under the rug.
Let us also address that we are sometimes not responsible for the pain we have. Sometimes pain is caused by other people—both physical and emotional. Victims of severe emotional trauma, such as victims of sex trafficking, have emotional numbness that is like the numbing side effect of leprosy. When you suffer from depression, grief or shock, you retreat into an emotionless state of mind in order to protect yourself from feeling pain. Jerry Sittser, Author of A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, writes about this phenomena in his own life: “There was a radical split between the self that did my work and the self that watched me from the shadows” (44).
In Ancient Rome, when leprosy spread rampantly through physical contact and other close exposure, people who had leprosy (also called lepers) were exiled to leper colonies. Even now, we mimic this behavior because we tend to isolate those going through “emotional leprosy” or emotional numbness. We create our own “leper colonies” by avoiding the issue, or not really knowing how to be compassionate toward victims of severe trauma. Sittser writes about creating a community of support for people who are emotionally numb: “Some kinds of losses, like sexual abuse […] are usually private. Most people never hear about them, or, if they do, hear only enough to respond ineptly to the peculiar signs of behavior that may surface. Instead of becoming a community of support for these wounded people, they may actually prolong and aggravate the suffering because of their ignorance or insensitivity, which may be due to no fault of their own” (174).
Of course, the other side of this spectrum is to become too empathetic—so much that you take on the trauma empathetically. This is called Secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is not a mental disorder recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM); however it has very real symptoms that are similar to PTSD. Symptoms include: irritability, excessive blaming, difficulty sleeping, chronic fatigue, isolation, feelings of resentment, compulsive behaviors, poor self care, sadness, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, mental fatigue, etc. If you experience these symptoms from your involvement with Second Life Chattanooga, or in your education of sex slavery, take a break, and make sure you talk to someone about it.
Similar to Secondary PTSD, another way you can become burned out on helping a cause with desperate need is Compassion Fatigue. Compassion Fatigue is characterized by symptoms of a “burnout” or reaching an emotional breaking point. Symptoms are similar to those of chronic stress (withdrawal from friends and family, changes in appetite, loss of motivation, changes in weight, changes in sleep patterns, hair loss, upset stomach, anxiety, intense mood swings, feelings of hopelessness, hypertension and fatigue). Again, if you experience any of these symptoms, take a break, contact a health care professional, and practice healthy coping strategies. A few healthy coping strategies are: adopt a healthy diet, engage in regular exercise, use social support or meaning-focused coping, practice proactive coping (preparing for projected stress in the future) by setting boundaries, keep a journal, and/or discover your creative side with a hobby, or project.
We have discussed a lot of information, so here is what you should take away from this article:
1. Maybe after the new perspective, we can become optimistic about pain. Do not mistake me. I do not at all suggest that we should become masochists. I merely suggest a coping strategy for grief or pain—to be thankful for feeling physical pain, because it is protecting you from further harming yourself. Sittser writes, “If we face loss squarely and respond to it wisely, we will actually become healthier people, even as we draw closer to physical death” (A Grace Disguised, 18).
2. If, when reading about sex trafficking, you find yourself closing yourself off to it, or not wanting to think about it, don’t feel bad. It is a normal emotional response to “bad news.” We can become victims of trauma even vicariously through Secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Compassion Fatigue. If you feel like you are overwhelmed with empathy for those you are helping. Take a break and practice a few healthy coping strategies such as those listed above.
3. Try to maintain a balance between exiling those who have experienced trauma, grief, or pain, and taking on the stress of those who have experienced trauma, grief, or pain as your own emotional shock or distress.
Further reading on stress management can be found at: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_management_relief_coping.htm