Self-Care in Trauma Work

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It has been a little over a month since I arrived in Cusco, Peru, to volunteer as a therapist with children and youth. After a few weeks of altitude acclimatization, overcoming food poisoning, and finding a permanent apartment, I was able to search and find two great agencies/NGOs where I would be able to do therapeutic work with children who experienced traumatic life events.

The first one is a Transition House, where mothers have sought refuge and shelter from their abusive husbands. The mothers are free to stay there for up to a year. After a while, some of the mothers will find a new apartment and start a new life somewhere else. Others decide to go back to their husbands hoping that they have changed. My job as a therapist is to work with their children who, unfortunately, witnessed domestic violence and were strongly impacted emotionally, mentally and physically speaking.

The second one is an NGO that takes in and shelters children who were abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents. Some children will be able to go back to their parents’ successfully. Others will return to their parents and will have to come back to the shelter due to their parents’ lack of change. Others will stay at the shelter and grow up without parents until they reach 18, the age at which they will have to leave the NGO and fend for themselves in the world. Last but not least, some will be adopted nationally or internationally.

My role is to provide emotional support to these children, aged between 6 and 18, who have come from families where there was alcoholism, serious neglect, violence, abuse and abandonment. However, their trauma doesn’t stop there. Not only have they experienced serious trauma due to their parents’ choices and behaviours, but they now also have to live with the deep wound of growing up away from their family, close and extended.

On my first day at the NGO, I was informed about the family and trauma history of each child as well as their current situation in terms of adoption or reinsertion into their families.

While listening and thoroughly taking notes about each child, I quickly remembered my Counselling teacher telling our class about the dangers of vicarious trauma. This is where I learnt that the therapist can be ‘traumatized’ by hearing the painful stories of her clients if she doesn’t take care of herself well-enough. My teacher was also very adamant about the necessity of having a life full of joy and fun in order to balance the heavy work as a Trauma Therapist.

As I was sitting in the sunny patio listening to the stories of my future clients, I consciously took a deep breath and told myself that I would need to write a self-care plan as soon as I went home that night.

Most of the stories were about alcoholism and how it prevented both parents from taking care of their children. As I was only going to be able to see 9 children per week (from 3-6pm), I was asked to make a choice about the ones that seemed to require immediate attention.

Difficult choice… see for yourself:

A little girl, often left to herself in a unhygienic place while her mother went out drinking, who witnessed her mother’s sexual activities with the men she would bring home under the influence;  another girl who, due to trauma, forgot about her little sister that was killed by her mother who is now in prison;  a young boy who has been waiting for his family to come get him for many years and who therefore refuses to be adopted;  a teenage boy who will soon be asked to leave the place as he will turn 18 and is struggling with depression, panic attacks and self-harm;  a boy with special needs who will most likely be separated from his 4 other siblings when being adopted as few families are willing to adopt 4 older special needs siblings at the same time ;  another girl struggling with uncontrollable attacks of rage, who was often blamed of ‘killing’ her mother who died giving birth to her… And that’s just a few examples.

We finally made up a plan and have some children in a waiting list. In January and February, the children will be off school, which will allow me to see up to 5 children a day.

After I went home on that day, I sat down and noticed how I felt. There was some pressure in my chest and a tightness in my throat. These stories had definitely touched my heart and I knew I had to be careful and take care of myself. If I want to thrive as a Trauma Counsellor/Art Therapist over many years, I need to find balance in my life.

On that same evening, I wrote a self-care plan which includes weekly massage, reiki session, yoga class, ecstatic dance, meditation, drawing, reading inspiring books, debrief with supervisor and mentor, as well as meeting with friends. And this plan starts tonight with my first Sound Healing Therapy Group Session!